Romantic piano concertos. Time to roll up our sleeves for this one. This chunk of repertoire contains some really popular, widely beloved music. A Romantic concerto can get people in the door for an orchestra concert, especially if it’s Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky. People want to hear the swooning melodies and clamorous climaxes live. Some of this music is deeply personal to me too. I’ll get into that later.
But this is a rather exhausting category (hence taking an extra week to figure this all out). These pieces heave with emotion and try to pack in as many scintillating technical passages as possible. One thing I look for in Romantic concertos is piano accompaniment material that’s not just tediously technical. Since this repertoire also tends to emphasize big tunes, I look for those too.
If you go down the YouTube rabbit hole, you’re bound to find some channels dedicated to obscure piano concertos, with people commenting and lamenting that “the most beautiful piece in the world” isn’t more widely known. I listened to a lot, and thought that some obscure gems might rise. But the standard rep still pulls its weight. You’ll see a few in the next post that made it to Honorable Mention and are still worth discovering.
One last thought: it’s interesting to note that for composers who wrote multiple concertos, No. 2 is usually the one where they nailed it.
10. Alexander Scriabin: Piano Concerto in F-sharp minor, Op. 20
Scriabin had a knack for turning up the Romantic dial to 11, and this piece inhabits some of the same territory as his solo piano music of the same period, alternately dreamy and exalted. It’s still a bit of an underdog, probably because it gets better as it goes. The first movement has moments of beauty and great power, but can still fade into the background. This is followed by an uplifting variation set that shows a lot of variety, and in the finale he gives us a big tune (18:05) that returns in increasingly grand settings. The coda has the kind of romantic juiciness we all crave in a concerto.
9. Frédéric Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11
Chopin got really ambitious in his first concerto. It’s over forty minutes long, and even just the orchestral introduction is about five minutes. He frequently evokes the spirit of Mozart; the second subject of the first movement is an interesting combination of Mozartian delicacy and more Romantic flourishes. The Larghetto even more directly points to Mozart; indeed, when I first heard it on the soundtrack of The Truman Show, I thought it was Mozart. This movement plays to Chopin’s strengths of ornamentation and rubato melody. The rondo finale is unmistakably Chopin and a real technical showcase.
8. Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23
Here’s an icon. Raise your hand if you have a CD or LP of Van Cliburn’s 1958 recording. That’s certainly where I first heard it. The opening is unforgettable, plunging right into a soaring melody. There’s something a bit vulgar about all those clattering chords as accompaniment on the repeat, but I’ll allow it. Some of Tchaikovsky’s structure is awkward and lots of the music just doesn’t stick with me, but it’s all so big-hearted it’s hard not to like. The second movement’s theme has become pretty well-known, and casts a nice dreamy spell. The third movement has rhythmic drive and a nice big tune to close it out.
7. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto. No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1
Rachmaninoff has one of the best piano concerto track records of any composer. He’s up there with Mozart, Beethoven, and Prokofiev. And his first outing in the genre, as a nineteen-year-old student, is pretty amazing. He pays homage to Grieg and Schumann in the piano’s opening descent across the span of the keyboard. A red-hot passionate mood prevails through the first movement, and it’s cool to see musical DNA of other works like the C-sharp minor prelude and even the second concerto. I wish I could have been at the premiere, watching people’s reactions during the first movement’s epic cadenza as they realized that a new talent had arrived. More beautiful, rhapsodic outpourings fill the Andante and the finale. It’s remarkable how much of his piano style seems fully formed already. Of course, he revised this piece years later, and said “I have rewritten my First Concerto; it is really good now. All the youthful freshness is there, and yet it plays itself so much more easily. And nobody pays any attention. When I tell them in America that I will play the First Concerto, they do not protest, but I can see by their faces that they would prefer the Second or Third.” Even if the Second or Third is your favorite, give this one a chance and add it to the mix.
6. Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 44
Maybe this is a controversial pick, but I think it’s ultimately a more interesting piece than No. 1 and really, really underrated. Maybe its complicated version history has contributed to this. Tchaikovsky presents some solid melodies in the first movement, along with some unbelievable juicy cadenzas. Yeah, some of the transition material is tedious; it’s Tchaikovsky. The second movement (21:07) is the real appeal here, and might be one of the great concerto slow movements of all time. Tchaikovsky turns the piece into a triple concerto for piano, violin, and cello, all three instruments engaged in spinning out a melody that gets more beautiful each time. The third movement rides along on a wave of excitement, ending on a satisfying note. I found out that in 2020 the New York City Ballet will present a program choreographed to this entire piece. That will be interesting.
I couldn’t even find a piano reduction in print. That’s how underrated it is…