OK, to clarify what I mean by this title, I’m referring to concertos composed in a post-romantic style, which leaves out composers like Rachmaninoff, Medtner, and Korngold. They’ll be ranked in the Romantic category (still to come).
Even this chunk of the twentieth century was a huge mountain of repertoire to climb, and notable for a proliferation of left-hand concertos, thanks to pianist Paul Wittgenstein. He commissioned works from Britten, Hindemith, Korngold, Prokofiev, Ravel, Strauss, and others, though his conservative taste left him displeased with some of the results. That kind of explosion of left-hand repertoire is unlikely to happen again. Stay tuned for #5-1 to see if any left-hand concertos made it to the ranking…
10. Francis Poulenc: Concerto for Two Pianos (1932)
This is Poulenc is at his most charming and seductive. The first movement starts with some neo-Classical bustling, swerves through alleys of chanson tunes and festive castanet rhythms, before arriving at a hypnotic section of childlike wonder that sounds like minimalism from much later in the century (5:50 in the video). Out of the repetitive pattern, a romantic orchestra soon swells into phrases that really tug on the heartstrings. It’s a really special moment, and Poulenc throws a few similar ones at the audience in the second movement. The finale provides more French charm and class. This concerto’s stock is going up and becoming essential repertoire for two-piano teams.
9. Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945)
This would be notable for being the “deathbed” piece of a composer as important as Bartók, but it’s a great work in its own right. There’s a lighter, Mozartian quality than the other concertos. Listen to the quirky, weightless melody at the beginning. In the Adagio religioso, Bartók quotes directly from Beethoven’s string quartet Op. 132, making a connection with spiritual devotion and introspection. I really like some of the “night music” passages of dialogue between the piano and woodwinds. The finale has Bartók’s infectious rhythmic drive.
8. George Gershwin: Concerto in F (1925)
I find this piece to be more serious and controlled than Rhapsody in Blue, with a more mature American yearning. The bustling orchestral intro builds expectation for bustling piano, and then the piano entrance turns out to be this quiet, melancholy thing building into a passionate romantic theme. So memorable. The concerto is still a bit sectional at times, but Gershwin gives more thought to the exposition of material. Listen to the unhurried laziness of the second movement, like sitting in the park on a weekend afternoon. It takes a full three minutes for the piano to appear! In this expansive movement, Gershwin includes some really touching moments that edge the piece toward greatness, like the dialogue between violin, flute, and piano after the climax (22:22 in this video). And how great is that “big tune” (notably in E major, the same key as the famous slow theme of Rhapsody in Blue)? Then the third movement is a bustling toccata with uptempo versions of the big tunes, all culminating in a colossal recapitulation of that film-noir first-movement theme. By this point it’s all really moving, with Gershwin just laying all the emotion out there.
7. Igor Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-24, rev. 1950)
The opening chorale is fascinating, subverting every expected cadence. After that, the first movement is pure Stravinsky grooviness. Neoclassical machinery whirs away, with the pianist alternately stuck in moto perpetuo nightmares and banging through some nasty grooves. Listen to the cadenza at 6:08! The second movement provides an oasis of stillness with lovely woodwind solos. A moment starting at 8:59 has a real sweep, with a world-weariness that speaks across the decades, with perfect reed-heavy scoring. The piano gets a painfully beautiful, delicate cadenza moment starting around 11:54. The third movement abounds with more grooves; it’s hard to believe this was written a year before Gershwin’s Concerto in F, and anticipates even crazier rhythm developments. The chorale from the first movement returns at the end, putting a cap on this absorbing piece.
6. Benjamin Britten: Piano Concerto, Op. 13 (1938)
This piece is so much fun. On repeated listenings of the first movement, every piece of musical information fits perfectly in the puzzle. The second theme has a great swaggering sweep, and feels like a revelation when it’s restated after the cadenza as a sort of lullaby. Britten’s orchestration rivals Ravel, and I think I even hear Tchaikovsky in some of the joyous energy. The second movement is a catchy waltz with slinky clarinet solos and tambourine flourishes, growing in sound and grotesqueness as it goes. The slow burn of the Impromptu is awesome, taking us to a darker place. It’s basically a passacaglia, built on a sequence of harmonies flickering between major and minor. The bitter climax at 24:33 is sure to make audiences sit up in their seats. In the finale, marching rhythms underline both extroverted moods and more sinister characters.