The Top 10 Piano Concertos Written Since 1960: Part II

Annnd we’re back with Part II. The five pieces listed here show a pretty amazing spectrum of what’s possible in the piano concerto genre, and they’re full of incredible moments. Savor these pieces. Think about them. At the end of the list I’ve got a few Honorable Mentions.

Witold Lutoslawski – Piano Concerto (1987)

One thing I like about Lutoslawski’s concerto is that you get lots of the best elements of modern piano concertos in one package: machine-like passages, new orchestral sounds, action sequences, heavy crunchy chords, and some nice big cadenzas. Those cadenzas have real character and lots of interpretive possibilities. And a bloom of Romantic angst around the 4:30 mark in this recording successfully evokes the passion of Rachmaninoff while still feeling fresh. Lutoslawski, one of the very best composers of the last century, makes this a fascinating journey from beginning to end.

Piano Solo Part ($27.95)

Andrew Norman – Suspend (2014)

In a century that has produced lots of loud, banging piano concertos that emphasize the percussive aspects of the instrument, this one dares to be different. Andrew Norman, following up on his award-winning Play for orchestra, wrote this concerto for Emanuel Ax that spends its first ten or so minutes slowly developing the motives F-A-E and F-A-F that were important to Brahms, with just the barest filaments of orchestral accompaniment. Repeated notes also serve an important role. Then, about halfway through, the piano takes flight with some arpeggios and the orchestra starts to come to life. It winds through some lovely vistas to an uplifting finish, achieving some of the same airy elegance as Norman’s own Sabina for string trio.

Einojuhani Rautavaara – Piano Concerto No. 1 (1969)

Rautavaara embraces the hugeness of sound possible with a piano-orchestra combination. In the opening cadenza, the piano launches into a melody stated in huge arm clusters, over a roiling sea of arpeggios. There’s already a sense of a vast sweep, and then the orchestra hits and the intensity gets turned up to 11. Unbelievable stuff. It’s like sailing on a great ship in turbulent Nordic waters. Rautavaara’s harmonic language is attractive, with some biting bitonality. The first movement develops with clear logic, and the second movement provides an oasis of noble hymnlike progressions, with arpeggios still very much a part of the mix. In the finale, a short, energetic toccata leads to a restatement of the first movement’s opening chord progression.

Alfred Schnittke – Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979)

This is a real classic. It’s relentlessly dark and creepy and never fails to get under my skin. Like most of Schnittke’s work, the piece alternates or juxtaposes tonal harmony and familiar sequences with grotesque, shiver-inducing elements. I love the chugging episode starting at 8:11. In one memorable piece of material that appears a few times (like at 16:56), strings play three rich chords in a row that affirm Do-Re-Mi, and the piano then bangs away over it. Hyper-emotional. Tension is maintained all the way to the quiet, bleak ending.

2-Piano Reduction ($36.95)

Simon Steen-Andersen – Piano Concerto (2014)

I’m absolutely fascinated by this composer’s work, which often forces me to redefine my notion of which sounds can be considered music (as in this piece). His piano concerto is a gutsy deconstruction of the genre, with an accompanying video of a piano being dropped and smashing on a concrete floor in slow motion. A sampler plays recordings of sounds from the ruined instrument. There’s a lot of ear candy here (maybe a super-sour candy): foreboding washes of sound in the orchestra, spiky grooves, and snatches of Beethoven from the ruined piano. The whole thing is just really fresh. It’s a piano concerto from a faraway dimension.

Honorable Mention:

John Adams – Century Rolls (1997)

Compared to all the deeply serious new piano concertos, Century Rolls seems too lightweight to me. That’s my general reaction to a lot of John Adams. It’s skillfully written, undeniably fun, but not always deep. But maybe that’s the point. It cruises along on buoyant energy, with a touching Satie-inspired slow movement and a jazzy finale.

Full Score ($35.00)

Alberto Ginastera – Piano Concerto No. 2 (1972)

Even more epic and volcanic than his first concerto, which I wrote up in the last post. The first movement is a set of variations on the dissonant chord that opens the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (with some added tones by Ginastera that make it a 12-tone row). He offer a huge range of textures from spare single notes to thrashing crunchy chords, and the second movement scherzo for right hand or left hand alone is a neat creation.

2-Piano Reduction ($35.00)

Joan Tower – Piano Concerto (Homage to Beethoven) (1985)

I found the dark, cinematic vibe really appealing. The frequent usage of chimes creates even more of an anxious, apocalyptic mood. It’s a veritable action movie from beginning to end, determined to hold the audience in its spell. There’s a neat cadenza near the end that blossoms with more tonal warmth. And the Beethoven aspect of the program comes to life in subtle quotations from the “Waldstein” and “Tempest” sonatas, as well as Op. 111.

2-Piano Reduction ($20.00)

Iannis Xenakis – Synaphaï (1969)

Synaphaï sounds like it came from deep space, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even among repertoire with large pianistic and orchestral effects, this piece is positively colossal (listen to 3:50). You won’t hear piano writing quite like this anywhere else, except maybe in Xenakis’s other work: a tour de force of obsessive, stuttering, repeated notes jutting out in different registers in complicated rhythmic relationships. I’ve heard that the score at some points has a separate stave for each finger. This concerto may never enter the standard repertoire, but I’m glad it exists.

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