The Real 20 Greatest Piano Concerti of the 20th C., part II, no.’s 10-1

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.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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21 comments on “The Real 20 Greatest Piano Concerti of the 20th C., part II, no.’s 10-1”

  1. DJ Young

    Whew – was relieved to see Shostakovich – he ranks a little higher for me, but I love this list overall. Great choices.

  2. Mark C

    Ken, I would have to put Respighi’s Concerto In Modo Misilodo as near the top 20. Brilliant piece using Gregorian Chant.

  3. Another Brian

    Wow – it’s clear that I have a lot of (very, very happy) listening ahead of me after reading through your top 20! I’ve only got one obligatory super-obscure work suggestion: Szymanowski’s Symphony No 4, “Sinfonia concertante,” a couple of great tunes and moods bolted onto a really irresistible rhythmic structure.

    I’m one of those rare deformed souls who prefers Shostakovich Concerto 2 to Concerto 1 – just the idea that he could write that slow movement without a trace of irony, in 1957, boggles my mind.

  4. David Galvani

    Referee, penalty!!!
    As somebody who sat through 90 mins of Prokofiev sonatas at one sitting last week, I know you can have too much of a good thing, especially compressed into a confined space or list. Although I like his concerti, I don’t love them like Rach – and surely LvB deserves a mention Ken???

  5. David galvani

    …..*LvB* in the sense that he transcends centuries and boundaries!!!!!

  6. Brian

    I will hereby profess my unabashed love for Rach 2; the second movement never fails to transcend me. That being said, what about the Poulenc (or don’t we include works for two pianos?) I’ll be honest that I’ve never heard any of the four Kabalevsky concerti, but if they’re even close to his fabulous work for cello and orchestra, they might supplant some of the works here. THAT BEING SAID, thanks for including the Stravinsky. I only heard it again this past weekend and it was a joy to recall what a great piece it truly is.

  7. Kenneth Woods


    Brian- I didn’t think it would take so long for someone to mention Rach 2. You’re right- it is a great, great piece. From a listener’s perspective, it seems more successful in some ways than the 3rd- it’s not as ambitious and original, but it also seems compositionally less effortful and more polished.

    The Kabelevsky I know well is the student concerto, which come up a lot on young artist concerts. It’s attractive, but nothing more than that. His second Cello Concerto is a wonderful piece, and very intense and substantial (especially compared to the 1st, again a piece for students).

    I had the Rach 2 around 18-20 at one point, but others pushed it off. It’s literally at 21 now.

    Nobody has yet cried foul on the most obvious omission…

  8. Kenneth Woods

    @Another Brian

    The Szymanowski is a great piece. Wonderful- is it a concerto? Not sure. It sort of is. Hmmmm.

    The 2nd Shostakovich has had quite a revival. I like it a lot, but I don’t think it is as great a work as the first. That said, considering he wrote it as teaching piece for his son, it has amazing audience appeal.

  9. Another Brian

    “Nobody has yet cried foul on the most obvious omission…”

    Oh goodness. Rhapsody in Blue? Ravel in G? Khachaturian? Are we all missing something really obvious?

    I listened to the Lutoslawski last night and quite enjoyed it.

  10. Michael Monroe

    I’ll add my voice to those supporting Shostakovich #2, which seems to be underrated because it’s too enjoyable – but it’s brilliantly put together. I also couldn’t live without the Ravel G. (It will seem now that I have a particular weakness for sappy slow movements. Oh well.)

    I agree that all the Prokofiev concerti rank highly, but I think #3 deserves higher billing, no matter how often it’s played – yet the first Prokofiev concerto is probably the single concerto I listen to the most. I think there have been car trips where I’ve listened to it 3 or 4 times in a row back to back. Amazing I never got speeding tickets on those trips.

  11. Zoltan

    While I can think of a few concertos, that are not on your list and haven’t been mentioned yet, like Dohnanyi’s 2nd or the “Variations on a Nursery Theme”, the three of Bortkiewicz, the Atterberg (though, mostly, their works look back to the 19th century), I would hazard a guess, that you’re thinking of Martinu’s concertos (of which I’ve heard good things, but haven’t come around listening to them yet).

  12. Daniel de Borah

    Hi Ken, Just stumbled across this one, and I’m honoured to have played your top two with you! I agree that Prokofiev and Bartok must clog the top of the list, (though as you know I feel Brahms would give Mozart a run for his money in an all time list…) I guess I missed the boat for discussion time but clearly Ravel in G is the obvious omission, I would need to include it solely on the merits of the slow movement. But more telling I think is the omission of Scriabin (Concerto and Prometheus both) – don’t you “dig it”??

  13. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Daniel! Great to hear from you.

    I was hoping the omission of the Ravel would create some genuine outrage, but everyone has taken it relatively in stride. Of course, it’s a wonderful piece, but I prefer Ravel in his more pure forms, without the Gershwin-isms. Give me the Piano Trio, String Quartet, Violin/Cello Duo or almost any of the solo piano music, especially Tombeau de Couperin.

    Funnily, I would say something similar about Scriabin- the Concerto is nice, but the late Sonatas are just so much cooler. I do like Prometheus!

    Hope you’re playing some great concerts there!


  14. Craig

    Though I’m a great fan of all these concertos, I’m not sure choosing all the Prokofiev is really fair. Same goes for the Bartok.

    But isn’t it time for new and different in the concert hall? The Salonen Piano Concerto needs time to become more well known. How about John Foulds Dynamic Triptych? It’s certainly not new (1930’s) andvirtually unknown yet different from all the Bartok and Prokofiev concertos. It’s worth listening to.

    Concert audiences (and programmers) shy away from strange and different music unless it’s up to the minute. And if it’s brand new, how often do we get to hear it again? A different topic for discussion.

  15. peterjohndean

    I would put in a plea for Martinu who, apart from actual piano concertos, used the piano so much that many pieces not officially concertos sound as if they are.

  16. PhilipG

    Great list! I have to say I agree with most of it! Prokofiev #1 and #5 are such wonderful and overlooked pieces of music.

  17. Julián Negromanti

    great list!. Haz tu escuchado los conciertos de Ginastera?
    greetings from Argentina

  18. Julián Negromanti

    Prokofiev the second is undoubtedly the most beautiful piano concert in history. The first move! That cadenza. Sorry for my english

  19. Sean

    I enjoyed you list very much. I personally would have re ordered some of them, but that may just be my taste. Shostakovich Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Strings was rated ninth, and i personally would have that in the top five.

  20. Lance

    Your list is different from the other lists I’ve read who in a cliched manner ALWAYS stick to the Beethoven’s Fifth or Fourth Piano Concerto. It is good to know that there are some people out there who know that Beethoven piano concerto isn’t necessarily the best…

  21. Andrew

    If I may suggest one (though I’m not surprised it didn’t make the list), Akira Ifukube’s ‘Ritmica Ostinata’.

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