The Top 10 Classical-Era Piano Concertos: #5-1

Reaching the end of the concerto-ranking journey (I won’t be doing the Baroque), I think my biggest takeaway is a huge surge in appreciation for Mozart. His piano concertos are just a really incredible body of work. I also applied a more analytical eye to Beethoven concertos that I had grown up loving but hadn’t really studied as an adult. The auxiliary composers that made it to honorable mention (Clementi, Dussek Haydn) might get their own concerto spotlight on this blog at another time. It’s been a lot of listening, a lot of shifting opinion, and a lot of writing. Hope you enjoy it.

5. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, K. 482

This whole piece seems to reflect back on itself, on the idea of going to a concert, with some knowing nostalgic, sentimental winks. Even compared to other Mozart concertos, the first movement of this piece has a way of welcoming you in, making sure you’re comfortable, and then serving up pleasing music. Some of the exuberant, propulsive gestures in this movement remind me of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos, K. 448. Though the themes are average, the piano offers nice decoration and elaboration. The best little thematic lick doesn’t come till the development (7:18), and then it’s gone in a flash. In the exquisite Andante, lots of dissonances and details draw the listener closer. The opening paragraph stated by the strings is a real wonder, deeply felt. Then the piano brings more delicacy to the table, with many gestures reaching up plaintively. There’s a lot I like in this movement, but listen especially to the coda at 22:33. So simple, yet so quietly heartbreaking. The finale returns to high spirits, zipping along. At times the piano gets a real workout; from abut 25:04 to 25:41 it’s almost nonstop sixteenths at a fast tempo. Mozart brings the action to a halt at 27:38. This beautiful oasis of stillness causes the piece to reflect on itself again; it evokes that moment in a concert when everyone’s a bit tired from an exciting evening, maybe too full of food and drink, but very satisfied.

2-Piano Reduction: Schirmer

4. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491

This piece was admired by Beethoven and Brahms, and is still regarded as one of his best concertos. The first movement commands the listener’s attention with heavy chromaticism and an insistent main subject. I’m really impressed by the exposition: rhythmically unified, flowing forward in 3/4, and with a major-key second subject that appears subtly, like a pale beam of light shining in the darkness. The piano stays busy through much of the movement with running sixteenths, occasionally with a sort of Baroque sequential treatment. There’s one moment I enjoy (7:50) that sort of parallels the beginning of the first-movement development in Mozart’s own A-minor sonata, K. 310. Over pedal bass, the piano plays scales as the clouds gather and the music settles toward the inevitability of C minor. Again, after the cadenza, he conjurs up the same sense of dark certainty to close the movement (12:58). The Larghetto is a respite from the chromaticism, but not particularly strong. Mozart returns to form in the fantastic Rondo. It makes its case with simple, blunt gestures that surely Beethoven appreciated. The episodes are stormy and exciting, and the piano writing tends toward thickness to amplify the drama. Listen to the episode that starts at 24:32. What a huge sound! And the orchestra matches the drama.

2-Piano Reduction: Schirmer | Henle

3. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

The exposition features lots of pauses and surprises, and then great Beethovenian harmonic logic leading from minor-key malaise to major-key hope. Themes are clearly drawn, and Beethoven gets lots of mileage out of big accents and phrases tapering off. The movement proceeds with a fine sense of balance and nice harmonic surprises, but I wish he had let loose in the piano part a bit more. This is the composer who by this point had written the Tempest Sonata! When he does crank up the piano writing, as at 11:47 and then in the cadenza at 12:54, it’s awesome. Maybe it was all part of the plan so that the cadenza would make even more of an impact; it’s a pretty scintillating passage of music. The Largo plunges us into the remote key of E major for a delicate piano solo, giving way to reassuring strings. It’s a lovely movement, but a lengthy sequence of accompanying arpeggios in the piano can come off as tedious in a bad interpretation. Honestly, even in a good interpretation. They’re just tedious and not much is happening. The finale is a blockbuster: a C minor “pathétique” character, better executed than in the finale of the Pathétique sonata. Even when the edge-of-your-seat action relaxes, in an E-flat major section near the end, Beethoven soon whisks the listener away into a little orchestral fugue, and then a modulation to E major! The piece ends in a blaze of C major glory, piano spinning notes faster than the speed of light – I love the timpani triplets.

2-Piano Reduction: Schirmer (Beethoven Complete Piano Concertos) | Henle

2. Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453

After listening to many Mozart concertos, this piece ended up being my favorite of the bunch. I would recommend it to anyone who needs cheering up, because it worked for me on one of those days. Optimism is the key word in the first movement. It bounds forward joyfully, and the little woodwind flourishes are just so darn cute. Also, listen to the exposition and then listen to this excerpt of the Britten concerto – am I the only one who hears the influence? I like some of the sophistication that creeps out of this seemingly blithe G-major atmosphere (listen at 1:40; a simple phrase and then a reiteration with more complex harmonies). It’s hard to find words to describe the slow movement except that I love just about every detail. The prevailing mood is serene, but it occasionally dips into some darker hues and grows in fullness. Listen to the material at 17:39 – gorgeous! And some recurring string textures of triple-stops over dotted rhythms give the movement some majestic inflections. The finale is engaging and pleasing. Mozart concocts some neat piano passages to outline the contours of the themes, and breaks up the jolly mood with an alien-sounding sequence of dissonant suspensions (25:43). Another weird moment occurs twice, first at 28:04, when a stark E-flat octave interrupts the joyride. E-flat had been an important key area in the Andante, and here it adds just that extra bit of tension before a happy sprint to the finish.

2-Piano Reduction: Schirmer | Henle

1. Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”

Having relegated Beethoven’s Fourth to the lowly #10 spot, I’m wary of showing undue favor to this piece. I know it’s even longer than the Fourth, and the more you listen the more you realize much of the first movement is built on infinite variations of V-I progressions. But the grandness of it all is irresistible. What can top that opening? The piano cadenzas in between the tuttis reveal worlds between the chords, suspending time. Those three chords in the opening outline another fundamental harmonic progression that Beethoven then revisits in later passages. The second subject goes through an amazing transformation, from E-flat minor in the orchestral exposition, to a quietly magical B minor 3-on-2 texture in the piano’s exposition, to a big E-flat major march fit for…an emperor (6:25). I’m actually pretty confident this is the moment that caused Johann Baptist Cramer to apply the nickname to the piece. One of the best moments in the movement comes at the end of the development, when everything fades out so the orchestral engine can start up again with that triplet turn motive (12:46), leading to an even grander version of the opening, with the piano getting another opportunity to elaborate on the worlds between the chords. It’s just the best!

OK, new paragraph. The Adagio. What can I say? It’s serene, soul-cleansing, noble. Beethoven’s restrained piano writing in the first part of the movement brings Mozart to mind. But the way he stretches out each harmonic area, bending time to the breaking point, makes it uniquely Beethoven. If this music catches you at the right time, it’s really touching. It’s a quiet, reflective cup of tea on a gray day. At the end of the movement, Beethoven again stops time (he should be arrested by the time police by now) for a modulation back to E-flat. The piano gently ascends in arpeggios, and then…Rondo! The rollicking Rondo theme, with its supremely odd accent on the second eighth of a 6/8 bar, always made me want to dance around the room in my early childhood listening (with the exact recording I’ve linked to above – Alfred Brendel with Bernard Haitink and London Philharmonic). Every episode keeps interest with cool new piano figurations, and Beethoven continues to play sneaky harmonic tricks. It’s just a whole lot of fun.

2-Piano Reduction: Schirmer (Beethoven Complete Piano Concertos)| Henle

Honorable Mention

Too exhausted to write anything about these. Go ahead and listen.

Clementi: Concerto in C Major

Dussek: Concerto in E-flat Major, Op. 70

Haydn: Concerto in D major, Hob. XVIII

Hummel – Piano Concerto No. 2 in A minor, Op. 85

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488

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