This is a list I’ve been thinking about ever since I first conducted the Prokofiev 2nd Piano Concerto with Daniel de Borah. 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. If the list seems toploaded with two composers, it’s only because I’m being ruthlessly honest. 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.
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.
10. Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand
I love both Ravel Concerti, but I think this one for the Left Hand is more moving and more Ravel-ian. It asks more of the audience than the G Major, and should be heard a lot more.
9. Shostakovich Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings
After Tchaikowsky, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, everyone thought they knew what to expect from a Russian piano concerto- big gestures, big sonorities, big tunes. Shostakovich turned the genre on its head in this piece- small forces (strings and a solo trumpet), lots of irony, lean piano writing, quotes from dirty drinking songs and Bruckner symphonies, and the funnies Coda of any concerto. It’s got genius coming out of its genius.
8. Bartok Piano Concerto no. 3
Bartok’s 3rd Piano Concerto has always been his most popular with audiences and least highly-regarded with critics and composers. Yes, it is written in a more direct and accessible style than his two earlier works in the genre, but it’s deeply, deeply moving music by one of the greatest masters who ever lived, and he knew it was his farewell (he was dying of leukemia when he wrote it). This piece reminds me of Beethoven’s final Quartet- it wears its depth and importance lightly, and says goodbye to this world with a smile, albeit a slightly melancholic one.
7.Tie! Prokofiev Piano Concerto no. 1 and Piano Concerto no. 4
I struggled with this- it seemed unfair to make fully half of the top 10 Prokofiev concerti when there are so many great pieces out there by so many composers. On the other hand, none of the Prokofiev’s seems like an 11-20 choice. The solution- a top 20 list with 21 pieces on it
Piano Concerto no. 1
Nobody ever told me about Prokofiev 1. I grew up thinking there must be something wrong with it. Student-ish? Not fully developed. Nope- when I finally heard it (only because I bought a complete set of all the Prokofiev’s to get a version I wanted of the 2nd), it blew me away. Why didn’t they tell me about it? I don’t know…. but I’m telling you about it now.
Piano Concerto No. 4 for the Left hand
Prokofiev’s left-hand concerto, it’s a bit darker and angrier than his 3rd, it’s a wonderful piece everyone should know better.
6. Prokofiev Piano Concert no. 3
The most perfect of Prokofiev’s 5 piano concertos, it may not be as soul-shattering as the 2nd or as off-the-charts brilliant as the 5th, but it is close to a guaranteed perfect listening experience- wonderful tunes, sparkling orchestration, thrilling piano writing.
5. Stravinsky: Concerto for Piano and Winds
I grew up in an era when Stravinsky simply was the Greatest 20th C. Composer. He may well have been, although Bartok, Janacek, Shostakovich, Berg, Messiaen and Prokofiev all deserve their shot at the title. I think he was certainly the freshest composer of the 20th C. If you’ve gone off piano concertos after one-too-many sloppy slogs through Rach 3, this piece is guaranteed to make you love the genre all over again.
4. Bartok Piano Concerto no. 2
Bartok’s 2nd Piano Concerto is one of the most thrilling and interesting pieces I know. The first movement is scored without strings, and brings to mind Stravinsky’s post-symphonies and post-concertos in completely abandoning the Romantic sound world and we associate with the piano. It’s insanely exciting, endlessly inventive and deeply moving.
3. Bartok Piano Concerto no. 1.
Infused with some of the same primitivist violence we know from the Rite of Spring, Bartok offers a complete re-think of the piano’s relationship to the orchestra. Instead of trying make the piano sing like the strings, Bartok actually embraces the percussive qualities of the instrument, going so far as to merge the piano and percussion section. If you need some music to dance around in a loin cloth to, and you can’t find your Rite of Spring disc, this is the piece for you.
2. Prokofiev Piano Concerto no. 5.
This work is not just a virtuoso showpiece for the pianist and orchestra, but is also a tour de force of compositional dexterity. If you’ve ever wanted to know what it would feel like to be inside the mind of one of the most dexterous thinkers who ever lived, this piece seems to give you a glimpse. It’s witty, dangerous music- perfect for its time.
1. Prokofiev Piano Concerto no. 2.
Prokofiev wrote this astounding piece in memory of a friend, also a gifted pianist, who had committed suicide. The work spans a huge emotional range, from black depression to grotesque humor. As a solo vehicle, Prokofiev pushes the piano about as far as it can go as a virtuoso instrument, and yet all the jaw-dropping virtuosity is placed in service of the emotional journey the piece takes you on, which is like nothing else in music.