Coming to the end of this category, I’ve gotten to write about some of my favorite pieces of music of all time. The ones that opened my ears and mind to how exciting classical piano music could be, and which are indelibly connected to some other formative music experiences or great memories. If you’re a pianist or a classical music lover, I hope these pieces move you in some way. If you haven’t discovered them yet, you are in for a treat.
5. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Many a layperson knows the eighteenth variation from this piece, and yeah, it’s pretty amazing. But the piece as a whole, a set of variations on Paganini’s most famous caprice, fascinates me too. It shows lots of Rachmaninoff’s personally and a more of a sense of humor than I have found elsewhere. As one of his last works, maybe he was finally lightening up. That humor may have had a morbid side, though, as in Var. 7 and onward he quotes the Dies Irae. I think I read somewhere that this was a commentary on Paganini and the myth that he made a deal with the devil. Or something. I have to commend Rachmaninoff’s sense of pace in this piece. The momentum of the first 10 variations dies out just when you’re ready for something new, and the composer never lets the listener get lulled to sleep; there’s always something new and loud and glittery waiting over the horizon. First-time concert listeners probably spend the whole time waiting to hear the famous 18th, but when you’re a seasoned listener, the anticipation from Var. 16 onward is absolutely tantalizing. I love the plaintive violin solo that comes to the forefront in Var. 16, evoking Paganini again. Var. 17 is like searching your way through a cave, finding strange new chambers at every turn. And then it finally comes to land in D-flat major. The transformed theme never loses its haunting poetry. Indeed, in a piece built so much on skittering, skeletal textures, this feels like the richest, most red-blooded human moment. After that oasis, there’s nothing left to do but gallop to the finish. Vars. 19-24, which form a sort of finale, have some of the craziest piano pyrotechnics of the piece. Overall, it’s a consistent delight, cleverly orchestrated, and shows a skill for variation form coming right after his Corelli Variations, Op. 42.
4. Johannes Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
At nearly an hour in duration, this grand, magisterial concerto often feels like a symphony for piano and orchestra, with a highly developed orchestral part and a sense of epic scale. I love Brahms’ embrace of the piano’s massiveness, as the soloist hurls blocks of material in spots like the opening cadenza and the one around 7:15. Athletic jumps across the range of the keyboard are also a trademark of the solo material. That opening horn call somehow creates a mood of nobility that never dissipates, despite its simplicity as a gesture. Its return around 12:46 is a magical moment. The tumultuous scherzo, which Brahms described cheekily as “a little wisp of a scherzo,” lands like a meteor, making enough of a dramatic impact that you almost forget what came before. Really exciting stuff. The beautiful, wandering cello melody of the Andante later became the art song Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer. The piano briefly finds respite in a cadenza before troubled emotions bubble up again. It’s definitely a Romanic concerto! The coda, with the piano and cello gently bringing the ship into port, is so quietly triumphant. I love it. Brahms may have been aware of his structural problem in trying to write a satisfying finale after three very intense, rich essays. At first the finale seems to be a retreat to lightness, but Brahms increasingly draws the strokes thicker, and even briefly recalls some of the first movement. By the times it’s all over, it’s been a really absorbing journey.
3. Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16
Every time I hear the Grieg concerto, I’m amazed at its clarity of vision, logical construction, and somewhat approachable difficulty that still allows lots of room for interpretation. These factors have helped to keep it popular; it’s a perfect first Romantic concerto to tackle. On the note about interpretation, I have so much trouble finding a performance of the first movement that I like. Sometimes the pianist and conductor don’t agree on tempos. Some pianists have weird idiosyncrasies or make the Animato section in the first movement forceful instead of playful. But when it comes off well, it’s a delight. Even when it doesn’t, it’s great music. The themes instantly find a home in your brain, and they get the star treatment in the powerful cadenza, full of sly reharmonizations. Despite the minor key, I always envision the composer smiling at his creation. The Adagio, so reassuring and melancholy at the same time, gives the strings a beautiful showcase in the opening paragraph. Lest we forget that this is a piano concerto, the soloist stays busy with fast figurations. I love the gentle triplet chords after the climax (17:45). The finale starts out with bustling purpose (almost a Grieg-ian take on Mozart’s Rondo all turca; maybe it’s just the A minor key) and gives way to a gorgeous lyrical theme that reappears in a grand, satisfying climax to close out the piece. Listening to this piece in between some Brahms and Rachmaninoff, I have to commend Grieg’s sense of restraint. All the climaxes feel earned and he avoids most of the bombast that plagues this genre.
2. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30
This piece has attained legendary status in the piano world. With its big emotions, earth-shattering first movement cadenza, and considerable technical challenges, it remains a test for emerging pianists to prove their worth. The movie Shine only added to the mythos of a pianist’s singular suffering to learn the piece. The difficulties are to numerous to name, but a lot of it comes down to passages that are just texturally maxed out and loud.
Rachmaninoff employs a more expanded sense of form here than in the Second Concerto, with long subject areas. The development slowly cranks the tension, leading to a really exciting climax (8:13) before the cadenza. The two cadenza versions seem to present different interpretations of the first movement material; the original (Rachmaninoff’s preference) is more in line with the tricky, skittery textures and follows up the climax with soft Romantic yearnings. The popularity of the more bombastic alternate cadenza began with Horowitz, and I admit it is more viscerally enjoyable to hear. It’s more about storming the heavens, shaking the audience, and the transition out has more of a sense of wonder at what’s just happened. In the second movement, we get a classic Rachmaninoff line that gradually works its way down rather than up. After that it’s a buffet of exotic colors and harmonies melting into each other. The cadenza in the middle of the movement ratchets up the passion to the next level, with classic romantic textures, leading into the kinds of swooning, triumphant builds that only Rachmaninoff could engineer. The third movement’s main subject is toccata-like, returning in stately settings that illustrate the protagonist looking toward new horizons. Parts of this movement feel like a summing up of the world of the piece, recalling the lovely second subject of the first movement and emphasizing the same heady emotions of the second.
1. Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18
This still feels like the ultimate Romantic piano concerto. It’s maybe the most passionate, romantic thing I’ve ever heard. My twelve-year-old mind was blown when I first heard the 1958 Van Cliburn recording (a random pick from the classical CDs at my local library), and now I’m a big fan of Richter and Zimerman (handily both represented in this video). The piece introduced me to complex musical emotions that I wouldn’t fully understand until much later. I had ripped only the first movement to my computer (probably because I found the Adagio boring at the time), and then later I inexplicably used to listen to the second and third movements in MIDI, and it still moved me. The music is that powerful. For a while I’d listen to the whole thing every night. I finally got to play the first movement for a concerto competition in college, and that was a great experience. You can project whatever emotions, stories, or dreams you want onto this music, and it’s great to return to and reflect on the memories that inevitably get woven into its fabric.
The opening plunges you into a somber mood that will soon give way to ecstatic outpourings. Much of the piece demands sensitive accompanying skills, with lots of contrapuntal note-spinning in the piano part when the orchestra has the melody. And those melodies? Incredible. All three movements are chock-full of great tunes, but the finale’s second subject is positively epic – one of the all-time greats. Listen to how the second statement of the theme expands and takes us higher to more psychological implications. Remembering the background of this piece, with Rachmaninoff undergoing hypnosis therapy after his failed Symphony No. 1 premiere, I hear something mind-expanding and revelatory in parts of the first movement (6:01, 9:03) and in one of the cadenzas in the Adagio (17:55). All in all, a classic. Hard not to be moved. A great gift to pianists.
Amy Beach: Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, Op. 45
An underrated piece. Full of beautiful romantic sentiment, dreamy, powerful. Beach brings the heat with some challenging piano writing (maybe a few too many parallel sixth sequences) and a big cadenza. Even aside from its musical value, it marks the historic first piano concerto by an American female composer.
Franz Liszt : Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
Much like Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, this is an adventure in thematic transformation. Also like the sonata, it’s never boring. I always want to see what happens next. The adventure proceeds with all kinds of wonderful Lisztian piano hijinks.
Nikolai Medtner: Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 50
This piece is Medtner’s best shot at entering the standard concerto repertoire. But is it good enough? Pianists like Hamelin and Berezovsky have advocated for it. I like the rhythmic impulses and the cadenza of the first movement. The second movement oozes Romanticism and the third is spirited and fun. But at the end of the day, most pianists and concerto programmers are going to pick Rachmaninoff. Let’s give him another decade.
Camille Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5 in F Major “Egyptian”, Op. 103
I always liked the first movement, but a live performance in Milwaukee really sold me on the rest. Check out the second movement (9:56); it’s one of the oddest in any Romantic concerto and really cool. The composer employs some scales and themes from his travels in Egypt.
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54
OK, lots of people love this concerto. It gets played a lot. I still don’t really understand the hype. But it’s a great music story: Schumann wrote the piece for his wife Clara to play, and used a musical setting of her name for the opening melody. How romantic! And yes, the first movement is nice and tuneful and flowing, but I have to confess the rest of the piece just kind of bores me. I’ll try to warm up to it!