Written by Joshua Villanueva.
The classical music repertoire contains hundreds of works for piano and orchestra, and yet we tend to hear only a tiny fraction of them in concert halls today: the familiar piano concertos by Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Mozart and Prokofiev.
The situation is even more limited at piano competitions, where Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, and Rachmaninoff’s second and third piano concertos are the most popular choices for contestants playing with orchestra in the decisive final round.
While nobody is disputing the merit of these masterpieces, there are many other beautiful works for piano and orchestra that teeter on the brink of extinction. Here are 10 that deserve to be played more often.
1. Johann Nepomuk Hummel: Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 85
You may know Hummel’s famous Trumpet Concerto, but what about his piano concertos? Hummel’s works are now rarely performed publicly, but during his lifetime they enjoyed great popularity, and for good reason.
Hummel's style combines sweeping, chromatic, Romantic melodies with an essentially classical conception. Listen for the highly ornamented solo line the Larghetto movement, and the scintillating final coda of his Piano Concerto No. 2. It’s not Chopin, but it could be!
2. Richard Strauss: Burleske
How often do you hear a dialogue between timpani and piano in a Romantic piano concerto? Call it comedy or absurd, but no one can deny the spirit of a mischievous trickster in this piece. While other composers aim to ennoble the piano concerto genre, Strauss concocts a flashy showpiece with lightweight jest. Get your ears ready for zipping octave passages throughout the piece and let your eyes take in the keyboard gymnastics and antics that are imposed on the pianist.
3. Dmitri Shostakovich: Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra, Op. 35
Like Strauss’s Burleske, this comical concerto mixes long lyrical melodies and teasingly witty, fast motifs. Audiences at the premiere were astounded by Shostakovich’s brilliant piano playing and the concerto’s unusual ensemble comprising two soloists — pianist and trumpeter — against a string orchestra. As soloists, trumpet and piano have equal roles, complementing each other in dialogue. Adding to the fun, Shostakovich quotes Beethoven, Haydn and even a Viennese folk song.
4. Franz Liszt/Franz Schubert: Grosse Fantaisie 'Wanderer,' S. 366
Schubert originally composed this piece as a four-movement fantasy for solo piano, but found it so difficult to play, he abandoned it, saying, “the devil should play this stuff!” A couple of years later, Liszt (not the devil) picked up the piece and transcribed it as a one-movement work for piano and orchestra that became very popular for a period.
Liszt’s arrangement remains faithful to Schubert’s work and makes the piece more playable and rewarding. He rescues the pianist from a concert disaster, for instance, by replacing the final page of complex arpeggios with solid chords against a brass fanfare.
5. Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 53
If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be inside a labyrinth, just listen to the frenzy of this concerto’s meandering theme. It’s hard to believe the work is written only for the left hand. Paul Wittgenstein, a soldier who lost his arm during World War I, commissioned Prokofiev to write it. However, Wittgenstein declared he “didn’t understand it” and the concerto remained unperformed for 25 years.
More pianists should consider playing this underrated work, in addition to Prokofiev’s other great piano concertos. The two Vivace movements share remarkable thematic and rhythmic material, and the beautiful, contrasting Andante movement is a gem.
6. Felix Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 25
Everyone knows Mendelssohn’s famous violin concerto, but his piano concertos have, historically, not fared as well. In his Piano Concerto in G Minor, the young and daring Mendelssohn experimented with linking the movements. This was uncommon at the time and perhaps contributed to the relative obscurity of the piece. Many people, including Clara Schumann and Liszt, praised the work, but Mendelssohn said, “I wrote it in but a few days and almost carelessly; nonetheless, it always pleased people the most, though me very little.”
But if Schumann and Liszt were fans, it deserves a closer look.
7. Clara Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7
Perhaps taking a cue from Mendelssohn’s piano concerto, Schumann also linked the three movements of her concerto. The fact that she wrote it at only 14 years old gives you a picture of a young composer with prodigious virtuosity. Listen to the expressive opening theme marinated in bittersweet chromaticism. What are the chances we’ll hear a performance of this work in 2019, the year that marks the 200th anniversary of her birth?
8. Charles Valentin Alkan: Concerto da Camera, Op. 10, No. 1
This concerto made musicians in Paris go wild, and contestants often selected it for the piano competition at the Paris Conservatory. It’s a wonder how this remarkable work faded away from the piano repertory: scored for an orchestra including four bassoons and a bass trombone, Alkan shows off his adeptness in orchestration. He also boldly featured the increased volume and range of the newly improved Romantic piano design. Just listen to that dizzying virtuosic passage with its extreme dynamics starting at 3:15 in the video below, and you’ll understand.
9. Muzio Clementi: Piano Concerto in C Major, Op. 33, No. 3
If you look at Clementi’s catalogue, you’ll notice there are two works listed as Op. 33, No. 3: a Piano Sonata and a Piano Concerto in C Major.
The original work was the Concerto in C Major, but Clementi made a solo piano version that became wildly popular among students at the Paris Conservatory — so popular, in fact, that it was banned from the Conservatory’s competition because the students who played it always won first prize.
But it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the original concerto version. The first movement may consist almost entirely of a simple, ascending C major scale, but it’s an opportunity for pianists to showcase their virtuosity with roller-coaster excitement.
10. Jacques Hétu: Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15
Commissioned by the Quebec Symphony Orchestra in 1969, this pointillistic concerto by Canadian composer Hétu demands extreme dexterity from the pianist. By recycling motivic units and infusing them with a vibrant pulse right from the first movement, Hétu captures the audience’s attention and keeps them on the edge of their seats. Perhaps taking a cue from Bartók's third piano concerto, Hétu demands lyrical expression from the strings in the second movement and shocks his audience with intense syncopation and startling sonic excursions in the third.
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