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Top 10 Greatest Piano Concerti

Flamehorse . . . Comments

A piano concerto is a composition in which a solo piano (or harpsichord) is accompanied by a large ensemble of other instruments (usually a full orchestra but not always). This list looks at 10 of the greatest (with an additional bonus entry from JFrater). The criteria for inclusion and ranking of entries are musical artistry, technical artistry, pianistic power, balance between piano and orchestra, and historical influence.

10

No. 2, C minor, Op. 18
Sergei Rachmaninoff

Possibly Rachmaninoff’s most famous piece, along with his Prelude in C# minor (which he actually got tired of performing in public). Rachmaninoff is one of the few classical composers in history who was a genuine triple threat: world-class composer, performer, and conductor. Thus, when it came to composing for his own instrument, he didn’t pull any punches. He knew what a classically-trained pianist should be able to do, and with gigantic hands that could stretch a 13th on the keyboard (the average man’s hand can barely manage a 10th), he incorporated a lot of equally gigantic chords in his music. This concerto begins with a driving, very atmospheric, almost dirge-like melody. As is typical of his works, the last movement winds up with a pulse-pounding moment of elation.

These 10-fingered chords are one of the primary calling cards of his music, one of the reasons you can recognize his music after only a few measures. His 2nd concerto was his first outstanding work in a long time, after a series of mediocre efforts, and this mediocrity was driving him to depression because he knew he was much better than the critics would have him believe. They lambasted his 1st concerto. His 1st symphony was notably derided by Cesar Cui, of the Russian “Big Five,” who claimed it could only be enjoyed by terrible musicians who died and went to Hell where they would have to listen to it forever.

Rachmaninoff was sensitive to criticism, and such comments, echoed by Leo Tolstoy (who also considered Beethoven horrible), coupled with the sudden suicide of Rachmaninoff’s mentor and friend, Tchaikovsky, drove him into 3 years of clinical depression and writer’s block. He finally overcame it with the help of Nicolai Dahl, who hypnotized him and repeated over and over, “You are a great composer. You will compose great music.”

9

Harpsichord Concerto No. 1, BWV 1052
J. S. Bach

It is not a bit of a cheat to include this one, since although Bach wrote it for the harpsichord (because the piano had only recently been invented and was not yet a very good instrument), it is today played at least as frequently on piano. That is one of the most amazing aspects of Bach’s music, and a brilliancy no other composer can claim: his music can be played just as effectively on any instrument combination; no musicality is lost; his is, thus, the purest music anyone has ever written, and if the percussive quality of the piano were not taken into account, this one would top the list.

Bach originally scored it for solo violin, and later re-scored it for keyboard. As is typical of his music, it is extremely complex, with polyphonic harmony of the highest order, and severe technical demands, which Bach could dash off with polished artistry. It also deserves a spot on the list because it is the first truly solo concerto, at least in the spirit of the soloist being able to show off.


8

Concerto in A minor, Op. 16
Edvard Grieg

This one has the distinction of being first played by Franz Liszt himself. Not in public, but when Grieg brought it to him for his approval. Liszt and he met in 1870 in Rome, and Liszt asked him to play it, but Grieg said that he had not yet practiced it, so Liszt sightread the entire thing, even playing the orchestral parts.

Liszt immediately complimented him highly, especially for the g-sharp in the final scale run at the end of the 1st movement. It is one of the most popular concerti today, being fairly easy to perform compared to the others on this list, and in the relative minor of C Major. This key enables the music to make excellent use of the lowest note on the piano. The 2nd movement is one of the most beautiful ever written, and a piece of which Grieg was particularly proud. He intended it to remind the listener of a verdant waterfall.

7

No. 4, G Major, Op. 58
Ludwig van Beethoven

Even today, there are quite a few critics and musicologists, as well as performers, who consider this Beethoven’s finest concerto. This lister is not so convinced, but what Beethoven does brilliantly in this one is pristine balance of melody, development, technique, musicality, and balance between soloist and orchestra.

Beethoven is known for short motif-like themes, which he could develop into the highest form of music better than just about anyone. He made much out of little. But now and then, as with his his “Ode to Joy,” he could dream up a melody just as lyrical as those of Mozart. The same is true of this concerto, and yet proper development of such lyrical melodies is extremely difficult for composers to muster, as the history of music bears out. Mozart was of the opinion that if you can compose a good melody, the hard part is over. Whenever excellent melody and excellent development meet, it’s a masterpiece, and that is precisely why this concerto is one.

The most notable moment in it is in the cadenza at the end of the 2nd movement. Beethoven wrote this one himself, but left the cadenza of the 1st movement to be improvised by the performer. He marked the 2nd movement’s cadenza “una corda.” On today’s pianos, we call this the soft pedal, which shifts the hammers from all three strings of each note to just one of each. But in Beethoven’s day, this pedal actually shifted the hammers to one or two of each note’s three strings, at the composer’s discretion, and he indicated the cadenza to make full use of this ability, “due e poi the corde (two and then three strings)” during the opening trill, and “due poi una corda (two then one string)” during the end. Today, it can only be done on a period piano of Beethoven’s time.

6

No. 1, B-flat minor, Op. 23
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Today, this may possibly be the most famous concerto on this list, ever since Liberace practically used it as his theme song for years, even playing the opening overture on giant piano keys around the side of his swimming pool. Tchaikovsky could play the piano, but was not well-practiced enough to perform this piece. For a supreme composer, this is no crutch. Like all the greats, Tchaikovsky wrote at a writing desk, not seated at a piano.

This concerto was very daring for its day, especially since Tchaikovsky dedicated it to his friend and magnificent piano legend Nikolai Rubinstein, the brother of an even greater pianist, Anton. Nikolai was an absolute master of Mozart’s piano music, and his playing style could not have been more perfectly suited to such cheerful, technically refined works. Anton was the one who broke strings when he practiced.

This concerto would have been perfect, therefore, for Anton to premiere, but Tchaikovsky was closer to Nikolai and Nikolai almost always premiered his new works. Unfortunately, when he read the score, he threw it down in disgust and proceeded to criticize Tchaikovsky harshly for what he termed “a concerto against the piano.” It was far too bombastic for his taste. Tchaikovsky was, of course, offended by this, but years later Nikolai approached him and asked for forgiveness, explaining that it had taken him that long to warm up to it. After that, he performed it all the time.

It has the single most famous passage of octaves in the piano repertoire, in the 1st movement. It takes a true musician to play them correctly but not to show off by rushing through them. There is a second octave passage in the 3rd movement. The most famous part of the entire piece, though, is the opening, an ecstatic revelry of ultra-romantic music from one of the most romantic of the Romantic era. And this overture doesn’t even have the 1st melody in it. It leads to the 1st melody. The 1st movement also ends extravagantly with one of the very few instances of a 1-4-1 cadence, when 1 chords (tonic) and 5 chords (dominant) are almost all you ever hear at the end of a piece of music. The 4 chord is called the subdominant.

5

No. 21, C Major, K. 467
W. A. Mozart

In terms of musicality, this one would rank second on this list behind #9, but we are equally examining all aspects of the piano concerto, and in terms of pianistic power, this concerto is quite a sweetheart. Mozart is not known for bombastic music, though he certainly wrote some. The phrase often thrown around (if you’ll forgive the God reference) is, “Bach gave us God’s Word. Mozart gave us God’s laughter. Beethoven gave us God’s fire.”

This concerto is typical of that carefree, happy quality for which Mozart is legendary. Nevertheless, the technicality and musicality of this one require a pianist with a finished technique, especially in presto legato fingering. The 2nd movement is used to great effect in the film “Elvira Madigan,” and now the concerto is sometimes nicknamed that. Beethoven, Haydn, and Hummel were in attendance for one or more of Mozart’s own performances of this piece, and all agreed that his technique, especially in the right hand, was faultless, with the running passages in the 3rd movement as unbroken as a river.


4

No. 3, D minor, Op. 30
Rachmaninoff

By far the most technically difficult concerto ever written for any instrument, requiring extreme pianistic power. Vladimir Horowitz, one of its finest recorded performers, called it “elephantine.” Just as in his 2nd Concerto, the music in this one reflects his hands, with many of the chords great big and fat.

His original cadenza for the 1st movement is filled with these massive chords and the pianist must bang the piano to death to deliver it with the proper leonine character. One of the best recordings of it is that of Lazar Berman, who did not shy away from its demands. The 1st movement builds to multiple climaxes, then dies away quietly to a lush, windy 2nd movement. Then, per his reputation, Rachmaninoff revs it up for a storming finish at the of the 3rd movement.

3

Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
Robert Schumann

One of the most finely polished of this list’s entries, and the quintessential work of the Romantic piano concerto repertoire. The entire work is based on a 4-note theme. It descends in minor as the main theme of the 1st movement. In the 2nd, it ascends in major. Schumann further varies it in the third. It is, thus, something of a cyclic work, intending to explore fully all the possibilities of a melody. The most monumental cyclic work ever composed is the Art of the Fugue, by Bach, who heavily influenced Schumann.

His wife, Clara, the greatest female pianist in history, premiered this one on 1 January 1846. Grieg may have been influenced directly by it in composing his own piece, #8. Both are in the same opening key, and both begin with an orchestral chord, followed by the descending soloist. This one ranks at #3 because of its pure Romantic character, the archetype of all the 1800s, and extreme musical complexity. Combine the two and you require, as Artur Rubinstein once said, “No one younger than 40,” if you want it played effectively.


2

No. 2, B-flat Major, Op. 83
Johannes Brahms

Unfortunately, Brahms himself was never recorded playing this one, but his mighty performances always brought the house down. He was short, but he was brawny and could easily impart his ample body weight into the strong passages. This concerto is today considered possibly as difficult as Rachmaninoff’s 3rd, not because of technique so much as because a diminutive pianist is at a severe disadvantage in overcoming the full orchestra.

It’s a thunderous piece all the way, in 4 movements, not 3. The 1st movement has a passage in it that sounds a lot like the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which is a total coincidence, and then it ends with a double trill flourish, in which the pianist adds another finger, then another, louder and louder as the orchestra swells, and the piano must be heard over it the whole time.

1

No. 5, E-flat Major, Op. 73
Beethoven

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoOR3rLUaeM

There are two stories of how it got its nickname, “Emperor.” One is that during its Vienna premiere, a French army officer remarked in the audience, “C’est l’empereur de concerti!” or “This is the emperor of concerti!” The other story, and likely the correct one, is that Beethoven’s London publicist, Johann Cramer, gave it the name.

It was premiered first on 28 November 1811 at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig with Friedrich Schneider at the keyboard. By this point, Beethoven was too deaf to perform it himself, but he certainly wanted to. He tended to play too fast from excitement. A few months later, 12-year-old Carl Czerny, pupil of Beethoven and later teacher of Franz Liszt, premiered it in Vienna. Czerny is reported to have played magnificently, and this is supported by the fact that Beethoven would not have allowed him to butcher it.

To play such a supremely difficult work of art at 12 years old is, today, almost unheard of. This was one of the first concerti, along with Beethoven’s 4th, to break with the Classical tradition of a long orchestral introduction preceding the soloist. Instead, it begins with the orchestra declaring the key and the piano fearlessly joining in with cadenza scale runs and trills.

The 3rd movement is, of course, just as fantastic as the 1st, but the 2nd is one of the most beautiful, poetic pieces of music ever written, unadulterated romance, the piano and orchestra as lovers, and by far the finest slow movement of all concerti. Rudolf Serkin has, under Leonard Bernstein’s conducting, a claim to the finest recording of it.

+

Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra
Alfred Schnittke

As a lover of contemporary and modern classical music I felt it only fitting that I add to Flamehorse’s list of concerti by including a piano concerto by my favorite composer, Alfred Schnittke. Schnittke composed in a very eclectic manner – using quotes from other great composers from the past but always adding his own flair. This concerto demonstrates that the art of concerto composing is far from dead. It is an incredibly moving and emotional piece of music. If you like this you will love everything by Schnittke. I definitely recommend you listen to more of his music.



  • Fenderrock

    Good list.

  • grosenberg

    Fantastic

  • Black Ninja Cat

    Not a bad list – but I enjoy Flamehorse’s controversial lists a lot more ;) Hit us with something shocking tomorrow!!!

  • Will Trame

    Good list. I’m developing an affinity for classical music as I age.

  • Uncle Ronnie Says

    Hi im Timmy and this is my comment. The list you just read or looked at the picture and/or videos and/or musical clips was about piano concerti’s or some shit i don’t really know because i was more bored than an albino on a sunny day. In conclusion this list was so uninteresting i ripped off all my beethoven posters (not the dog) and quit my aunt juliets musical academy of music. I give this list 5 thumbs up.

    • Salo Hes

      I applaud you Timmy. You give 5 thumbs up for something as interesting as this. Im gonna hate every pianist from here on, regardless of them being a part of my fav band..

    • Napoleon666

      Hi Timmy! Thank you for sharing that with us. Everybody, let’s give Timmy a big spiritual hug. Okay who wants to share themselves next?

  • Not Being Fresh

    Good list. I’m going to download these and listen to them in my favorite place to listen: in the car on a nice long trip. It’s nice when people use the correct terminology, too.

    This list is going to have some interesting comments.

    • Ben

      … Or maybe not.

  • Vanowensbody

    Great list flame horse

  • Ni99a

    I must say, only mother fornicators with posterior cavity can really enjoy this list. Bravo!

  • S

    Great list but I thought Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major deserved a spot! Just personal preference though.

  • Jacoby

    Expected to see at least one Chopin composition. Good list nonetheless!

  • Vincent

    The first time I heard Beethoven’s “Emperor” I cried. It happened to be the soundtrack version from the movie “Immortal Beloved” (with Gary Oldman as Beethoven). The music for the movie was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Georg Solti. Murray Perahia is the pianist. The 2nd movement is complete (as it must be), followed by a slightly edited 3rd movement. Despite the editing and missing the 1st movement, it’s beautifully performed, as is the rest of the soundtrack. It’s a good introduction to Beethoven; if you like what you hear here, you’ll seek out more.

    • Ben

      You cried? What a big girl’s blouse.

      • Vincent

        Yeah, I did. What of it? I’ll tear up at the opening of AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” too. Great music stirs the emotions. I’m not ashamed.

  • I found this very informative and inspirational. However, I’m…saddened…that you felt compelled to apologize for “the God reference.” Although I guess you were speaking to those who would be offended. How ironic to ask their forgiveness for referencing One whose only inability is not being able to refuse to forgive those who ask.

    • flamehorse

      I was being scathingly sarcastic with that parenthetical condition. I liked the Schnittke piece.

  • Ken

    My nipples explode with delight.

    • Tania

      very nice! i like that people still enjoy csilsacal music, despite orchestras having to play the pops (what is that??) we saw the barber of seville this past weekend on our date and it was 99% senior citizens, so also nice to hear that we’re not weirdos (or maybe you guys are, too;)!

      • Kevin

        wow, you’re really tkniag me down memory lane Kerstin she was in Vancouver, i thought, last time i read her blog. lost blog-track of her. checked out her post nice pic of the two of you. and your mention of Maria at FB where is Maria? tell her Hi for me. xo

  • Yama

    The schnittke piece starts to sound good and then *BANG BANG BANG* on the piano and then it starts to sound good again and *BANG BANG* then a lot dissonance and ugh. Not everyone can pull off discord in music, but I’ll be fair and say Schnittke pulls it off about a third of the time, with two thirds being unpleasant.

  • Excellent list and Kudos to you Flamehorse. Had it been 11 Top Piano Concerti, I would have added Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerti.

    • flamehorse

      I’d probably put Mozart’s 23rd there, and then maybe Chopin, but Prokofiev’s 3rd would be right there with them.

  • martyman5000

    It is a good list. My absolute favorite, though not as technically amazing, is Mozart’s piano Concerto 16 in C.

  • Ben

    I cannot force my eyes to look at words so boring. After about three lines I realised my life would be happier by not reading any further.

    Flamehorse should write a list about the best types of diesel locomotives throughout the ages, because he’s got the style just right for that kind of fun list. I also dislike lists that require you to watch videos because it’s just too much effort.

    • Ni99a

      The videos just take too much time to load in my sh1tty african country.

  • LVfan

    For #7, I don’t understand what the distinction is between the pedal mechanisms of today’s piano’s vs. period instruments. As it was described in the paragraph there didn’t seem to be any difference. Both types shift the hammers slightly over less than all three unisons. What’s the difference? The further you push down the more they move, right? No pedal = 3 unisons, full pedal = 2 or 1 unisons?

  • MarcelF

    Great list, Flamehorse.
    Just this one thing: two concerto’s by Beethoven, two by Rachmaninoff (deservedly, by the way), but only the second one by Brahms? The first concerto is absolutely monumental, one of the first ‘symphonic’ concerto’s, and it has one of the most stunning beginnings of all. I just found the performance by Emil Gilels with Jochum and the BPO on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fc3R7Zu_rvE ), and it blew my socks off, just as it did when I heard it for the first time as a teenager.

  • lawn

    You got #1 and #7 backward.

  • Staunch Musicologist

    #7: Gotta get better sources, Flame. Beethoven, in fact, wrote two cadenzas for the first movement, and the passage in the second movt is not, strictly speaking, a cadenza, but just a solo passage.

  • scrumpy

    No Chopin? Outrageous!

    • calmincense

      He only wrote two piano concertos, and neither of them are particularly acclaimed.

      Get over yourself.

      • scrumpy

        They’re acclaimed by me and my musical taste is superior to all others.

        • scrumpy

          Joking and rash comments aside,

          I’ve just listened to Chopi9n’s Concerto No.2 and It’s beautiful to me…..( and that’s what really matters)

          Why is it not acclaimed?

          Is it a glorified sonata? I

          • scrumpy

            Whoops! Hit enter too early! I meant to add that I’m happy to learn……..

  • Aurora

    It is such sublime works that reward daily attention to your site.

  • Dr. Jekyll

    Carl Maria von Weber – Konzertstück in F Minor, J282, Opus 79

  • shanapants238

    Really enjoyed this list :)

  • Jayboman

    I thought you might have mentioned that with Beethoven’s fourth it was the first time the solo instrument began instead of the orchestra.
    Re Brahms 2: I heard a music professor call it the “the complete classical work.” The second movement with the cello solo could easily bring one to tears.
    I remember reading that Rachmaninov and Hoffman would always call each other the better pianist, but both agreed on their opinion of Horowitz. Rach always believed he was the better auto mechanic, though.

  • Awesome list!!!!!

  • Nobody ever acknowledges Scriabin’s…

    • @ protraction. Did Alexander Scriabin compose a Piano Concerti. If he did, I would go to my local music store and purchase it. My favorite piece of Scriabin is his Etude No. 8, Op.12. A short piece but amazingly powerful piece. Its on You Tube and make sure that you see it performed by Horowitz.

  • I have to agree with calmincense. Though Chopin did compose 2 concerti. They are very rarely performed in today’s repetoire. But on the other hand, he wrote just about every other type of Piano form (Etude, Polonaise, Waltz, Sonata, etc.) You name it. Just for fun, look up Chopin and Liszt and the amazing respect that they had for each other and of course Chopin’s affair with Georges Sand, the authoress. I visited Chopin’s grave in Paris at the world famous Pere La Chaise Cemetery. The funny thing was I actually wanted to visit Jim Morrison’s Grave. Chopin’s left me very moved by seeing it.

  • iShitYouNot

    Well noted on Rachmaninoff’s No.2. My personal favorite.

    Me likey. :D

  • This list is a real brain twister for the fact that 2 out of the 10 Piano Concerti listed were the concerti that Van Cliburn of Texas (of all places) won the inaugural Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 1958. The Russian women were swooning over him and when the US found out that he had won, there were going to be ticker tape parades for him in this country. So I am imagining if Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky were sitting next to each other and watch an American, pull off two of the great works of the Russian repetoire, especially as the Cold War was heating up (no pun intended). I would say that they would at least raise their eyebrows. For you trivia fans, when both of those concerti were recorded on on LP very shortly thereafter he won, It became the first platinum selling Classical music album in history.

  • Reblogged this on Let's start from here and commented:
    One of my interests include listening to modern/traditional/contemporary classical music. =) nice list by the way!

  • Mabel

    Awesome list. Flamehorse is one of the few listers who can actually write well. I love music and book lists; they introduce me to so many new artists. (New to me, that is.)

  • Henry VII

    nice list, but not accurate. it lacks one of the most famous artists ever: chopin

  • wynajem limuzyn pozna?

    Witam czy kto? mo?e poleci? tani? wypo?yczalnie samochodów w Warszawie ? Patrzy?em w google – lista do?c d?uga , a ceny troszke wysokie. Interesuje mnie ?redniej klasy samochód w cenie do 100 z? za dob?.

  • Vazir Mukhtar

    Two suggestions for an “also ran” list

    Mozart: Concerto No. 24 in c minor (exquisite 2nd movement)

    Tchaikovsky: Concerto No. 2 in G Major (2nd movement is a short triple concerto and is blessedly not so overplayed as the first.

  • Rachmaninov’s No. 2 in C Minor is an exquisite piece of music and Mozart’s No. 21 in C Major is, well, Mozart. Bravo!

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