The Top 10 Contemporary Piano Concertos Written Up To 1960: #5-1

5. Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major, Op. 102 (1957)

Shostakovich composed this concerto for his 19-year-old son Maxim for his graduation from Moscow Conservatory, and the father-son relationship manifests itself in some really special ways. The first movement’s twinkling mischief and soldier-marching rhythms evoke toys; the pairing of this music with the Tin Soldier story in Fantasia 2000 (where I first heard it) was so well done that it took a long time for me to remove that association. The first movement is really tightly composed, with not a second wasted. I love the moment when the second subject bursts out in a big, heroic, major-mode transformation (5:11), and leads right into the delicate little cadenza. The Andante is a tender message from father to son, full of nostalgia and Mozartian simplicity. I played it when I was a kid, but now, as with some Mozart, I find even more emotional depths in it. Shostakovich gets personal in the third movement too, with funny parodies of Hanon exercises that Maxim must have practiced constantly. Overall, it’s one of Shostakovich’s happiest pieces and a real delight.

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4. Dmitri Shostakovich: Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings in C minor, Op. 35 (1933)

In his youth, Shostakovich played some gigs improvising piano accompaniment for silent movies, which may have inspired the constantly shifting moods and cartoonish hijinks in this piece. The outer movements are battles over tone and mood, while the two inner movements are resolutely solemn. Beethoven hovers in the background at times, with a quote from the Appasionata Sonata generating some material in the first movement and a quote from “The Rage Over a Lost Penny” in the finale. Even Beethoven is featured in both serious and silly moods! Shostakovich’s sense of humor really comes out in the finale, where the trumpet hogs the spotlight and the piano tries to reclaim it with increasingly desperate, bad-taste gestures. It’s probably the funniest piano concerto movement ever written. But those inner movements show a real seriousness of intent. The second movement features a touching melody, and the trumpet is actually lovely here when it gets a muted solo. The brief, flighty third movement turns from a contrapuntal piano cadenza to severe strings. After all this heaviness, the finale seems even funnier, even more spirit-lifting. I love both of Shostakovich’s concertos, but this one wins a higher ranking in its expansiveness and unpredictably.

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3. Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto No. 2 for the Left Hand (1929-30)

This piece was one of a dozen or so commissions from Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist who lost his right hand in World War I. It creates its own unique world from beginning to end. Part of that is due to the vintage Ravel orchestration. Listen to that opening, with a contrabassoon solo rumbling around, and then the piano solo emerging from the depths. It says from the very beginning that the underdog is in the spotlight. The piano’s first cadenza is magisterial and noble, befitting a war hero. The slower second theme is effectively set in a 3-on-2 texture that sounds like two hands. I love the extended martial-sounding section, with its slow build of anxiety and increasing bitonality. The whole build is masterfully done. A snare drum soon appears in the background, perhaps a parody of his own Bolero from the year before. Ravel gives his left-hand soloist a massive cadenza, a beautiful cascade of waterfalls that soon gives way to that low melody first stated by the contrabassoon. There are myriad musical delights here, of harmony, melody, texture. Probably one of my favorite pieces in any genre.

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2. Samuel Barber: Piano Concerto, Op. 38 (1960-62)

OK, I messed up. I forgot to check the date on this piece before finalizing my “since 1960” list, and here we are. But Barber did start composing it in 1960. I guess the real telling point is that I was so sure this piece would be in the ranking that I forgot to even check the date. Whatever the case, here’s a real American blockbuster of a concerto. It’s a passionate, neo-romantic beast that gets the blood pumping and tugs at the heartstrings. Much of the first-movement material is built around obsessive tritone leaps, up and down, and these motives finally reach a boiling point that results in a colossal cadenza. This passage (starting at 7:04 in the video), with snarling brass soon stating the opening theme, is one of the most exciting moments I can think of in any concerto. And then you still get the cadenza! Barber spoils us. The second movement is touching, spinning out a hummable tune, with steely gray twentieth-century accents. The brutal, insistent, third movement, famously composed in just a few days, is even more pedal-to-the-metal exciting than what’s come before. It taps into the same sinister energy as Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto (see below). He wants the audience to be rattled. I’ve never heard the piece live, but it’s near the top of my wishlist.

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1. Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 (1912-13, lost, rewritten 1923)

After Prokofiev’s earnest, joyful first concerto, he wrote a dark, epic sequel. It’s kind of breathtaking to think about the whole story: dedicated to the memory of a friend who committed suicide, the orchestral score soon lost in a fire, forcing Prokofiev to recompose the whole thing. We’ll never hear the original version, but the re-composition likely added a lot more intensity. Something odd happens in the first movement, where after about six minutes, the piano starts a cadenza, and it soon becomes clear that this cadenza is going to eclipse the rest of the movement and possibly blow up the music hall itself. Some might call the cadenza indulgent but it makes an incredible statement (in a ranking of concerto cadenzas, I voted it best cadenza of all time). Prokofiev follows up that Herculean feat with a perpetual-motion scherzo. These back-to-back movements call for a pianist of the highest order. The third movement offers no relief from the anxiety and violence, giving us instead grotesquerie. Then the fourth (!) starts off with a pure Prokofiev creation of chugging strings and scampering piano. Where is this concerto heading? Before too long, it all settles down into a melancholy little folk theme. Finally a moment of respite! It’s a beautiful theme, and appears again in several more intense guises. I love that at some points in the video (like 32:08) you can see one audience member in the terrace section, hand over mouth, just taking this all in. What a treat to hear this music so close to the action! I like all of Prokofiev’s concertos fine but this is the one I would most want to hear live. It’s packed full of moments where the music just shakes you, and any pianist who can conquer it deserves the utmost respect. Even by that standard, Yuja Wang’s performance is something really special. The way she tackles that first movement cadenza and swaggers through all the beastly technical demands…she is simply one of the finest pianists alive today.

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Honorable Mention

George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (1924)

This is obviously a classic, and will always be an American icon. The piano writing is fun, groovy, and not all that difficult (except the toccata section near the end). Despite all this, the Concerto in F is a more mature entry in the genre, even just one year later.

Bohuslav Martinu: Piano Concerto No. 4 “Incantations” (1956)

Martinu’s piano concertos are a solid, important body of work that I’ll need to keep investigating. This one stands out with its cool woodwind writing, fascinating dialogues between piano and orchestra, and majestic finale.

Olivier Messiaen: Oiseaux éxotiques (1955)

A treasure trove of color and rhythm. Messiaen scatters his celebrated bird calls throughout a chamber ensemble in fascinating combinations, and the piano gets some really cool cadenzas, especially at 8:55.

Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10 (1911-12)

The youthful spark is addicting. After a memorable grand opening, Prokofiev gets right to work with crazy hijinks in the cadenza. The second movement is equal parts touching and angsty, and the finale ends with another nice big statement of the first movement’s opening theme. It’s all over in less than fifteen minutes. I feel guilty not including the more popular third concerto on this list, but I just don’t warm to it as much.

Igor Stravinsky: Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929)

Compared to Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, this piece has lighter textures and more of a sense of fun. High spirits prevail throughout, and it’s great to see more of Stravinsky’s diverse piano writing.

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