This is a list I’ve been thinking about ever since I first conducted the Prokofiev 2nd Piano Concerto with Daniel de Borah about five years ago. I was amused at the thought of just how far down the list of the greatest piano concerti of the 20th c. I would go before I got to a piece not by Prokofiev. In the same way, if one looked to do a similar list of greatest piano concerti of all time, one might be well down the list before encountering a concerto not by Mozart.
Here were the rules- I decided to include for consideration all substantial concertante works for piano and orchestra written in the 20th c., so works without “Concerto” in the title were in the running.
Beyond that, the works were evaluated purely on the basis of how much I dig them. Historical importance was not considered, nor was stylistic relevance: i.e. how 20th c the aesthetic of the music is. In other words, someone like Rachmaninoff was not penalized for his stylistic links to the 19th c., anymore than any modernist composer was given bonus points for shunning such links.
As always, I reserve the right to be arbitrary, unscientific and provocative. I hope you will feel inspired to offer your own correctives
One work in particular gave me trouble- Messiaen’s Turangalila, which he described as a concerto and a symphony and a love poem. If it is a piano concerto, then it’s in my top 3 for the century. For now, I’ve omitted it from this list and will put it in it’s own category. Messiaen’s Oisauex Exotiques could also qualify for top 10 status if we call it a concerto. Again, since almost all of his orchestral music has moments that sound like a piano concerto, I’ve left it off this list, but you should listen to it.
The upshot of this making this list is both inspiring and depressing. It’s incredible to think of all this magnificent music out there, but deeply discouraging that most of it remains unprogramable in most settings. Will I ever get to conduct all 20 works on this list? I hope so, but it won’t be easy to find the chances. Mores the pity for listeners and players alike.
20. Schoenberg Piano Concerto
It is a piece perhaps more feared than loved, but it is far more colorful, lyrical and expressive than you think it is. Check it out.
19. Ligeti Piano Concerto
Alongside the Lutoslawski, it’s great example of the genre’s ability to amaze, enthrall and delight in the language of the late 20th c.
18. Barber Piano Concerto
Barber’s Violin Concerto is the far more popular than the Cello Concerto or Piano Concerto, primarily because of the beguiling loveliness of it’s opening. I can’t begrudge the Violin Concerto its status, but it’s a great pity the other two pieces aren’t known as well. The Piano Concerto is a darker, deeper, wilder piece than the fiddle concerto. I love the Finale- a wild 5/8 Toccata. I’ll never forget sitting in an orchestra when the conductor started it in 6/8. Yikes….
17. Gershwin- Concerto in F
Gershwin- wrote the greatest American opera, some of the greatest songs ever written, the most beloved pieces of jazz inspired classical music in the repertoire (Rhapsody in Blue and American in Paris). But you see, he couldn’t write serious music in classical forms. Oh wait, he did write the great American piano concerto.
16. Hindemith- The Four Temperaments
Hindemith is not only one of the most underrated composers who ever lived, he’s by far one of the most misunderstood and mis-represented. Where to people get the insane notion his music is phlegmatic and humorless, that it lacks tunes or that it’s dry? Nothing could be further from the truth. This piece is one of those “where has this been all my life” gems that most music lovers will never get to hear live.
15. Lutoslawski- Piano Concerto
In case you worried that the Piano Concerto had run its course, this masterpiece of the late 20th c. will delight and amaze.
14. Janacek- Capriccio
If you read this blog, you probably know a lot of the pieces on this list, like the Rachmaninov’s and maybe even the Prokofiev’s, Shostakovich and Bartok. If you don’t know this piece, you must. How is it that the paper Janacek’s music is printed on doesn’t just routinely catch fire. This piece actually knocked the Busoni Piano Concerto, for all its merits, off this list completely. If Janacek can say so much more with such a tiny ensemble in just a few minutes, shouldn’t the Busoni say more than it does with 300 performers and all those minutes?
13. Britten Piano Concerto
Why isn’t this piece played all the time? Even UK performances are fairly unusual (great to hear Ben Grosvenor play it at the Proms this year- hopefully, he will keep it in his repertoire for many decades).
12. Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini
It’s more elusive than the first 3 concertos, and demands more of the listener, but the big tune is one of those things that makes life worth living.
11. Rachmaninoff no.3
For being such a measuring stick for pianists, and an absolute all-time audience favorite, it seems a lot of people, especially jaded musicians and critics, forget that this is a hugely original and ambitious masterpiece. There’s never been another like it.