One of the most popular repertoires in the classical music genre is the piano concerto. A piano concerto is a piece composed for the piano accompanied by an orchestra or other large ensemble. Piano concertos typically aims to display of the virtuosity of the soloist – in this case, the pianist – showing an advanced level of technique on the instrument.
While there have been lots of piano concertos, there are ones that have truly left an indelible impression on the audiences and listeners, and even to non-classical music fans.
The first piano concertos were written during the mid or late 18th century. During the Classical era, Mozart lifted the form, which was further popularized by his own works such as Piano Concerto Nos. 21 and 27.
However, it was during the Romantic era where this genre really flourished, as it became a form of expression of immense variety. Most of the most popular and enduring piano concertos come from this period.
Have you got into a little argument with your classical music friends that Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto is the greatest piano concerto of all time? Have you fallen head over heels for the romantic second movement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto? Or have your knuckles turned white while trying to learn a Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev masterpiece? Here are some of the finest and most beloved concertos written for the piano and orchestra:
Could it be the greatest piano concerto ever written? While opinions and preferences may differ, there’s no arguing about the Emperor Concerto’s status as one of the best and most loved piano concertos. Beethoven’s fifth and final piano concerto premiered in 1812 and apparently earned its famous nickname when one of Napoleon’s officers, stationed in Vienna at the time, referred to it as an “emperor of a concerto.” And we couldn’t agree more.
Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto has become so popular that it has permeated pop culture, from David Lean’s Brief Encounter to Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” (or its recent cover by Celine Dion). A large part of its fame rests on its achingly romantic melodies of the famous second movement (Adagio sostenuto). So lovely, that it will even make you cry. Because of this, this concerto has been viewed by snobs as sentimental, and that’s quite unfortunate. Bad interpretations sometimes convey it that way, but frankly, they are all wrong. If you hear Rachmaninoff’s own recording of it, the piece comes off as cool and composed, with dignity, prowess, passion and poetry, all spread evenly. Rachmaninoff wrote this concerto in 1900 to 1901 (and premiered it in the latter year) as his comeback piece, after overcoming a three-year bout with clinical depression and writer’s block. He dedicated this work to none other than his physician, Nikolai Dahl, who did much to restore his self-confidence.
This is one of the few pieces of classical music that almost everyone knows, even without realizing it, just like Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” or Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” This concerto’s triumphant opening chords followed by the first theme are some of the most unforgettable bars in classical music. So it comes as a big surprise when it received heavy criticism from Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky’s preferred pianist, who rejected the work as “badly written” and did not want to play it. Tchaikovsky later revised his work, the last being in 1888, and this final version is now the most widely performed and recorded.
The three first piano concertos featured here on this list come from the Romantic period (by the way, Beethoven was a transitional figure of the Classical and Romantic eras). Now, let’s head back to the Classical era for this next concerto, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. It is particularly famous for its second movement (Andante in F major). Mozart wrote this work in March 1785, a mere four weeks after he completed his previous No. 20 Piano Concerto in D minor. The young and supremely brilliant composer premiered this piece himself before treating his audience to some of his famous improvisations.
This is the Norwegian pianist and composer’s only piano concerto, which was also his first large-scale work. Nonetheless, it has deservedly joined the ranks of the “greatest” and “must-learn” piano concertos. It has a lot of parallelisms to Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto: both of them are written in the same key, have similar dramatic descending parts on the piano at the opening, and have similar overall styles. Not to mention that both composers wrote only one piano concerto. This may not be so surprising, as the 24-year-old Grieg composed it after being inspired by Clara Schumann’s performance of her husband’s concerto. Now, it is one of the most recognized piano concertos in the world.
If your ultimate ambition is to become a legitimate piano virtuoso, you must be able to play this piano concerto – and pass the test with flying colors. Rachmaninoff’s popular third piano concerto is like the Mount Everest for classical pianists. It’s one of the most technically challenging and demanding piano concertos that even some of the greatest classical pianists shy away from it. One of them was Josef Hoffmann, Rachmaninoff’s friend and the dedicatee of this work. Rachmaninoff wanted Hoffmann to premiere the concerto as the soloist, but the latter declined, saying that it “wasn’t for” him. Instead, Rachmaninoff himself performed as the soloist in its historic premiere on November 28, 1909 in New York City. Gustav Mahler, another one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, stood as the orchestra conductor. While monumental and treacherous in scale, this piano concerto is also incredibly gorgeous and highly expressive.
Another third piano concerto from another Russian named Sergei. But this time, it’s a piano concerto written by Sergei Prokofiev, one of the leading composers of the modern classical era. Of all of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos, the third one is the most popular and widely acclaimed. It will also test any pianist’s stamina and dexterity. The cadenza of the first movement, so densely written that it’s scored on three staves, will put any pianist’s fingers to the test. The final movement, on the other hand, is a repressible force of pure energy. It’s also an incredibly beautiful piano concerto, striking the perfect balance between virtuosity and aesthetics.
Brahms’ first attempt to write a piano concerto began life as two-piano sonata. After working on it for an agonizing period of five years, it finally premiered in early 1859. It was also Brahms’ first orchestral work. The lovely and tender second movement was his tribute to his friend Clara Schumann, to whom he wrote of the section: “I am painting a gentle portrait of you.” The concerto is considered by many as a progress towards greater integration between the solo piano parts and the orchestra, whereas in the early Romantic piano concertos orchestras were having more of a back-up role.
Schumann’s only piano concerto, like Brahms’ piano concertos, was going against the prevailing custom of creating a work designed primarily as a vehicle for virtuosic showmanship. Schumann had false starts at piano concertos, with attempts in 1828, 1829 to 1831 and 1839. None of them were completed. Yet it wasn’t until he began composing a fantasy for the piano in 1841 that the true origins of this piano concerto began. It premiered in 1846 with his wife Clara as the soloist. The concerto is understated, with a lack of keyboard acrobatics, but it doesn’t mean that it is without its thrills and charms. The second movement is almost like chamber music with its intimacy, showing the wonderful interaction between the piano and orchestra. The finale, on the other hand, is a celebratory dance.
Chopin wrote his first concerto in 1830, immediately after the premiere of his second piano concerto… which is confusing. While his Piano Concerto No. 2 was actually first written, this concerto was written later but became the first one to be published. Chopin, who was only 20 at the time, dedicated it to composer and teacher Friedrich Kalkbrenner, whom the young Polish composer once considered studying with. Chopin wrote of the lovely second movement: “It is not meant to create a powerful effect; it is rather a Romance, calm and melancholy, giving the impression of someone looking gently towards a spot that calls to mind a thousand happy memories. It is a kind of reverie in the moonlight on a beautiful spring evening.”
Shostakovich wrote his second and last piano concerto as a birthday gift to his son Maxim’s 19th birthday. Maxim premiered this piece during his graduation at the Moscow Conservatory in 1957. The elder Shostakovich often downplayed this concerto, saying that it had “no redeeming artistic merits.” Indeed, music critics at the time often dismissed this piano concerto as less important compared to the Russian composer’s other works. But the audiences beg to disagree. It has become one of the most beloved piano concertos (listen to the lovely Andante) and is also a staple to any pianist’s repertoire. The jolly first movement is also featured in the Disney movie Fantasia 2000. It’s fair to say that it is one of Shostakovich’s happier and more life-affirming works — it’s guaranteed to put a smile on any listener’s face.