Tzigane, rapsodie de concert
May 6, 2018: Oliver Neubauer, violin; Anne-Marie McDermott, piano
On one of his many performing tours to England, Ravel attended a private soiree in 1922 at which Hungarian violin virtuoso Jelly d’Arányi played the composer’s Duo with cellist Hans Kindler. As the evening progressed Ravel asked her to play a Gypsy melody, then another, until the party finally broke up at five o’clock in the morning. Though that occasion planted the seed for his Tzigane, rapsodie de concert (Gypsy, concert rhapsody), it took another two years for him to complete the piece because of numerous intervening projects such as his opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (The child and the sorceries).
As it turns out, Ravel completed the brilliant, challenging Tzigane just days before Arányi and pianist Henri Gil-Marchex were to premiere it on April 26, 1924, in London. Her sensational performance dazzled the audience and critics—all but one, who expressed confusion over whether the composer was parodying Hungarian Gypsy violin music or launching a new style with more warmth than his previous works had shown. On November 24 that year Arányi also premiered Ravel’s orchestrated version, this time in Paris with Gabriel Pierné conducting the Concerts Colonne orchestra.
While Ravel had been working on Tzigane he had sought technical advice from his violinist friend Hélène Jourdan-Morhange. “Come quickly,” he telegrammed her, “and bring the Paganini Caprices with you.” This speaks volumes about the kinds of feats expected of the violinist in this one-movement piece. The colorful but spare orchestral accompaniment prominently features the harp ingeniously combined with the solo violin.
The opening “cadenza” for the unaccompanied violin sounds improvisatory and declamatory, beginning, in the instrument’s sultry lowest range and progressing through slides, trills, octave passages, and harmonics, all the while calling for the kinds of changes and bending of tempo so characteristic of Gypsy music. Toward the end of the cadenza the accompaniment sneaks in quietly but with an unexpected harmony. The violin and piano together launch the dancelike main section of the piece, which varies ideas from the cadenza and introduces two new themes—a sprightly patter first given to the piano and a swaggering theme marked “grandiose.” Ravel creates an effect of humorous suspense by slamming on the brakes several times during his brilliant drive to the close.
© Jane Vial Jaffe