This category was always going to be the Beethoven and Mozart show. I listened to some auxiliary composers to keep it fair, but these two masters just absolutely dominated the genre in their time. Mozart’s oeuvre can be intimidating. 27 concertos?! Where to start? Never fear. I’ve done the listening. A lot of this will come down to personal preference, but see what you think, and stay tuned for #5-1.
10. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
I feel like I have to acknowledge this piece as a really significant entry in the genre, as perhaps Beethoven’s most experimental piano concerto. It famously starts with a piano solo rather than an orchestral introduction, and the orchestra enters not in G major but in the remote key of B major. Lots of fights between duplets and triplets in the first movement keep some rhythmic interest. There’s something odd about the pastoral, expansive G major landscape; it tends to make the piano virtuosity seem less exciting. The cadenza is awesome but feels out of place in its flamboyancy. The Andante presents a cool call-and-response with stark unison motives in the strings that foreshadow some of the cello/bass recitatives in the Ninth Symphony. I enjoy the main theme of the Rondo, but somehow the rest of the movement doesn’t grab me.
2-Piano Reduction: Schirmer (Beethoven Complete Piano Concertos) | Henle
9. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503
The first movement has a grand, regal air with lots of heft and propulsion in the gestures (the timpani gets a lot of the credit). Listen to the orchestra tutti starting at 6:34. Amazing! One might be reminded of Beethoven’s first concerto at times, from the many long-short-short motives and the key of C major. The cadenza is sparkling, celebratory. Mozart finds a nice middle tempo in the Andante, with an active piano part that never lets the music drag. The finale is the real star of the show: cute, frisky, with so many details that delight the ear. It’s one of the best Mozart finales I’ve heard.
8. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major, K. 271
For any newcomer to Mozart’s piano concertos, this one is a great place to start, since it’s the earliest concerto where he really knocked it out of the park. The first movement is full of great energy, sparkling piano filigree, and charm. Mozart’s second subject in this movement reminds me of “Voi che sapete” from The Marriage of Figaro. In the somber Andantino second movement, Mozart shows maturity beyond his age (21 at the time of composition). Darkly plodding strings create a nice melancholy weight, and the dissonances in the piano’s opening statement (11:17) land like exquisite little jabs straight to the heart. The finale scampers along in a whirl of notes, pulling off the highway for a slow, extended Minuet section before returning to the opening Presto tempo.
2-Piano Reduction: Schirmer
7. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466
A perennial favorite of listeners and performers alike. The difficulty level is manageable for average college pianists and even talented high-schoolers, and the music brims over with intense drama as one of Mozart’s only two minor-key piano concertos. The rhythmic impulses of the first movement can be pretty exciting in the right performance, and the piano writing features some thicker chords than usual for Mozart. While the slow movement seems like a sleeper at first, it soon grows into a big life-affirming statement. The finale maintains stormy tension with some cool low-string licks and rides to an exciting finish.
2-Piano Reduction: Schirmer
6. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
The opening is a great combination of suspenseful pauses and grandeur. I love the fast upward scales that punctuate the rhetoric: byayaya-YUM! So satisfying. Beethoven keeps the thematic material integrated, especially that long-short-short rhythmic motive. The piano part is agile, with lots of sequences that recall exercises of the day. How about that second subject? It has such a great little flow, capped off with a cute appoggiatura at the end. The development is a bit paint-by-numbers, but Beethoven still throws in a tiny little oboe solo that foreshadows a similar moment in the Fifth Symphony. Of the three optional cadenzas, Version 3 seems most frequently played (12:40) and it’s easily the best. Cool new harmonic areas, steadily building tension, and a bombastic climax that marks the arrival of a new generation of piano playing. The second movement Largo takes its time unfolding a sweet, touching melody, given at times to the clarinet. Not a note feels out of place. Then Beethoven rouses us from the dream with a lively country dance Rondo. It bustles along with lots of Alberti bass, with all kinds of fun byways like the sneaky little A minor jam that begins at 33:08. After a short cadenza near the end, we get a classic Beethoven move to a remote key, B major in this case. The coda presents an obsessive, exaggerated treatment of the themes, popping up everywhere in different wind groups. The composer seems to not want to leave the world of the finale, tossing out lots of false endings before a final, definitive cadence.