July 6, 2016, 11:37 am | Updated 29 Aug 2017 5:34pm
From the exquisite chamber concertos of Haydn to the monumental works of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven - almost described as piano symphonies - these are the 20 concertos you need to listen to now, handpicked by Classic FM hosts.
In no particular order, these are the 20 piano concertos we think you should listen to right now - or better yet, go and hear a live performance. Right, plug in the headphones, let's go.
Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.5 (Emperor)
Let's start as we want to continue. This is arguably the greatest work for piano and orchestra ever written - it's nicknamed 'Emperor', for heaven's sake. This was Beethoven's fifth and last concerto, first performed in 1812 and apparently earning its nickname when one of Napoleon's officers stationed in Vienna at the time called it 'an emperor of a concerto'. Do we agree.
Check out Leif Ove Andsnes' guide to Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto
Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.2
This colossus of piano repertoire has topped our annual Classic FM Hall of Fame - voted by you, the listener - a total of eight times since charting in 1996. Rachmaninov wrote the play in 1900 after recovering from depression and a writer's block and it has become one of his best known and most popular plays. The floating melodies were used in
Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor
The great Norwegian composer has completed just one piano concerto, and it's become one of the best known in the world (thanks in part to this iconic comedy sketch by Morecambe and Wise). Written in 1868 when the composer was just 24 years old, it opens with a dramatic drum roll followed by one of classical music's most famous flourishes. Hold onto your hats...
Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra
The French composer Francis Poulenc said of this concert: "You will see for yourself what a tremendous step forward it is from my previous work and that I am really entering my heyday." Not for modesty, but to be fair, this concert is contagiously wonderful. The work was written in 1932 and one can hear the influence of jazz music that challenged and revolutionized the world of classical music.
Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No.2
The composer himself downplayed this concerto, saying it had "no redeeming artistic merits". But audiences have always asked to be different. Written in 1957 for his son's 19th birthday, it is fair to say that the work is one of the composer's happier pieces. It even includes a joking reference to his son's piano practice - note the scales in the last movement at around 1:40 p.m.
Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.3
Another warhorse of the piano concerto repertoire of a romantic size. Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto is one of the most technically difficult concertos ever written (which is quite something). The pianist to whom it was dedicated - Josef Hofmann - never performed it in public, and it was the composer himself who gave the first performance in New York in 1909. It was apparently Rachmaninoff's favorite piece of all his piano concertos.
Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.1
This is one of those pieces of music that everyone knows - even if they don't know - like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. It is all the more surprising that when Tchaikovsky first showed and played it to pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, he tore it to absolute shreds, as Tchaikovsky later described: “R. pointed out in many places where it would have to be completely reworked and said that if I reworked the concerto according to his wishes, then he would do me the honor of playing my thing at his concert. 'I will not change a single note,' I replied, 'I will publish the work exactly as it is!' I did that.” And we are so glad you did that, Pyotr.
Mozart's Piano Concerto No.21
For our next concert we return to classical music. Mozart's most delightful Piano Concerto No. 21 was written in 1785. The great composer premiered the piece himself before treating the audience to some of his famous improvisations. The second movement, Andante, is probably the most famous section of the piece. Here is a beautiful performance (Andante starts at:14.26)
Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 in E minor
Chopin wrote his First Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1830... immediately after the premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 2. Confusing. But this is the famous pianist/composer's first published piano concerto. Chopin wrote of the second movement: "It is a romance, quiet and melancholic, giving the impression of someone glancing gently at a place that recalls a thousand happy memories." Here it is:
Brahms' Piano Concerto No.2
Brahms wrote his first piano concerto in 1858. A little over two decades later he completed his second piano and premiered the work himself in Budapest in 1881. It is one of the longest concertos ever written - although the composer ironically calls it "a tiny, tiny piano concerto". The finale is a rousing, virtuosic showcase. Here's the whole thing in all its glory:
Beethoven's fourth piano concerto
Beethoven's sublime Fourth Piano Concerto was first performed in a historic concert on December 22, 1808, in a program that also included the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Choral Fantasy. A review of the period called the work 'unique, artistic and complex' and this concerto was not only absolutely gorgeous but also revolutionary - in that the soloist opens the whole concerto.
Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.3
The third sits right at the center of Beethoven's series of piano concertos, and is a kind of bridge between the classical style of the previous two and the virtuoso romanticism of the last two. There are influences from Mozart, but also a lot of famous Beethoven solo piano material, especially at the end of the first movement (at 1.10pm in the video).
Mozart's Piano Concerto No.20
While Beethoven only composed five piano concertos, Mozart managed a respectable 23. Of course, Mozart's works were generally smaller and, it would be fair to say, lighter works - in fact, Mozart said of three of his piano concertos: "To win applause you have to write things that." are so silly that a coachman could sing them". His 20th concerto, anything but silly, is one of the composer's most beautiful works.
Shostakovich's The Attack on the Beautiful Gorky
Ok, so this wasn't technically written as a piano concerto, but it's a piece for solo piano and orchestra and it's super epic. So let's add it to our list. It was written as part of the soundtrack for the 1919 film The Unforgettable Year, but ironically no one remembers the film being a classic piece of Soviet propaganda. Hear those thunderous chords and cry.
Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major
Maurice Ravel claimed to have dreamed up the theme for this enchanting piano concerto on a train between Oxford and London. Rather, he aimed for a light-hearted piece "in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns". But as it turned out, the work tormented him as he wrote it - particularly one melody in the slow movement. "That flowing phrase!" he said, "as I worked it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!”
Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 2
The pianist András Schiff said about this piece: “For the pianist it is a piece that breaks the fingers. It's probably the most difficult piece I've ever played.” Hungarian composer Béla Bartók wrote the concerto in 1930, and it's not just the solo part that's tricky - the New York Philharmonic had to postpone the premiere because they couldn't master the music in time.
Here Yuja Wang shows how it's done:
Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini
Not only is this one of the greatest works for piano and orchestra ever written, it is also one of the most celebrated works of the Romantic era. It is structured as a set of 24 variations on the theme of the 24th and final of the Caprices for solo violin by the celebrated violin virtuoso Paganini (which you can hear here). The result is a work that wears its heart on its sleeve and demands the highest level of technical and interpretive ability from its soloist. Paganini would have been proud.
JS Bach's Piano Concerto in D minor
Bach's piano concertos are among the very first - and they were not written for the piano but for the harpsichord. In fact, this concerto, written around 1738, was probably originally written for violin before Bach decided to arrange it for harpsichord, possibly as a practice piece for his own sons. The result is an exquisite example of baroque ensemble music.
Haydn's Piano Concerto No. 11 in D major
Haydn's Piano Concerto No. 11, written some fifty years later than Bach's concerto above, is one of the earliest of the classical era, although it was still written for harpsichord or fortepiano. The main theme of the last movement - the most famous of the piece - has been identified as a dance, possibly from Bosnia or Croatia. This theme then undergoes a series of unexpected and daring modulations and variations, resulting in one of the greatest piano concertos ever written. From 5.40 p.m. it can be heard here:
Brahms' Piano Concerto No.1
The brilliant British pianist Stephen Hough said of this piece: "[It] is like a symphony in which the piano and orchestra sometimes seem engaged in a titanic struggle, themes being hurled across the stage with dramatic rhetoric". Brahms wrote it in 1858 when he was just 25 years old as the first piano concerto – he only wrote one more later. The piece was not very well received during his lifetime, but has since been recognized as one of the greatest compositions for piano and orchestra.
Image: Gustavo Dudamel and Daniel Barenboim perform Brahms' at the 2014 Berlin Festival. Image:German gramophone/ Matthias Creutziger/Unitel