The Most Exceptional Piano Concertos in History

Byvu lita

Sep 11, 2023

Well, it was quite a task, but we’ve stuck our necks out and selected some of the greatest piano concertos ever written.

We’ve made a conscious choice to include just one concerto by each composer – so many apologies to (deep breath) Brahms 1, Chopin 2, Prokofiev 3, Beethoven 4, Saint-Saëns 5, a dozen Mozarts and many, many other wonderful works for piano and orchestra.

Here we go, though. What do you think?

The greatest piano concertos of all time

Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2

The ultimate technical challenge and test of stamina for any pianist, Prokofiev 2 drives forward like a freight train, pulling out of the station gracefully, tentatively, before hammering on its way.

The opening movement’s cadenza, so densely written it’s scored on three staves, is a white-knuckle test for any pianist, while the final movement is an unstoppable force of pure energy.

It’s also incredibly beautiful, the composer perfectly balancing virtuosity and aesthetics.

Khachaturian Piano Concerto

In the creepily sinuous Andante con anima second movement of Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, a distinctly eerie sound – like something from a horror movie – emerges from the back of the orchestra.

While this appearance of the musical saw (or, alternatively, the flexatone) gives the Armenian composer’s 1936 work a uniqueness within the concerto repertoire, there is a lot more to his Concerto than just that.

The opening movement is a riot of oriental colour and chromaticism, while the Allegro brillante finale hurls the soloist, orchestra and listeners towards a thrilling finish.

Brahms Piano Concerto no. 2

To be honest, when it comes to cast-iron classics of the piano repertoire, there’s barely a hair’s breadth separating Brahms’ two monumental piano concertos.

The First is stormier, full of youthful passion (the composer was 24/25 when he wrote it) and with a meltingly gorgeous slow movement. The Second, written some 22 years later, has that recognisable ‘mature Brahms’ style – a warm, sometimes melancholy, slightly ‘autumnal’ feel.

Yes, there’s another beautiful slow movement to wallow in, with an unusually prominent part for another instrument – the cello, in this case. Which is not to say that Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto is lacking in drama: the second movement features a gripping duel between piano and orchestra.

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5

Beethoven’s fifth and final piano concerto blazes with majesty and energy, its three movements ranging from transcendence to triumph.

Cast in the heroic key of E flat major, this 1811 concerto is full of confidence and joy – listening to it can’t fail to lift one’s spirits.

The piece is at its most magical in the Adagio un poco mosso, a hymn-like movement in B major that seems to take us to another realm.

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2

Is there a more romantic concerto? Okay, the work is now imbued with the heady emotion of David Lean’s classic film Brief Encounter (1945) and it’s easy to see why it was chosen as the soundtrack.

It’s a musical rollercoaster of contemplation and elation–which it ably added to what might have otherwise been a bit of a staid drama.

Written while Rachmaninov was coming through a deep depression, the music does appear to render, in vivid hues, the complexities of human emotion – from the darkness of self-doubt to the intoxicating release that comes when the light is finally allowed in.

Ravel: Piano Concerto

A whip crack. Jazz-infused melodies. A soundworld taking inspiration from Basque and Spanish music. What’s not to enjoy? Ravel’s concerto manages to achieve real emotional depth while also giving us the perfect party piece.

After the first movement, which is full of fire and fun, the second movement takes a step back and explores a much more serene landscape.

The piece ends with a final movement travelling through a series of unexpected key signatures to revisit the initial feisty atmosphere. It’s got everything you could wish for in a piano concerto.

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 2

Another Second Concerto – and another composer for whom choosing a best piano concerto is quite a task. All five of Saint-Saëns concertos are absolute gems, full of sparkling writing for both piano and orchestra.

Number two might just shade it, however, with its dense and captivating first movement (full of Bachian solemnity) and wild thrill ride of a Finale.

The central movement, meanwhile, always make us feel as though we are sauntering down a Parisian boulevard in the spring sunshine.

Grieg: Piano Concerto

Grieg is well known as an exceptional melodist, a spinner of some beguiling and often captivatingly atmospheric tunes, and nowhere is this more in evidence than in his only piano concerto.

This concerto probably rivals Tchaikovsky’s for the most dramatic opening in the piano concerto literature. After that, there’s a wonderful continuum of beguiling melodies and absorbing ambiences.

This is another piano concerto blessed with an achingly tender slow movement. That’s followed by a lively Rondo finale which also contains a beautiful central theme.

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20

Up until number 20, Mozart’s piano concertos are generally bright, quicksilver pieces. Here, though, a captivating element of darkness enters this most wonderful body of work.

Almost like a proto-Romantic concerto (its equally fine successor number 24 is even more so), Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 has a distinctly ominous opening. There’s a brooding tension here that foreshadows some of the darkness of Mozart’s great opera Don Giovanni, which was to follow some two years after.

Then, of course, there’s that wonderfully frenetic final movement. Right from its beginning – a dramatic up-surging arpeggio known as a ‘Mannheim rocket’ – this movement constantly captivates, managing a fine balance of tension and lightness.

Schumann: Piano Concerto

Schumann’s only piano concerto contains some of the same mixture of Romantic drama and joyously infectious melodies as Grieg’s, which came some 23 years later. Indeed, the two are often paired on disc – there are some wonderful pairings from pianists such as Murray Perahia, Leif Ove Andsnes, Radu Lupu and Stephen Kovacevich.

This is another concerto with a dramatic opening. Shortly after, the sense of stirring as the melody starts to assert itself and spread throughout the orchestra is a very exciting movement (and something Schumann did very well – think of the buildup of momentum of his First Symphony, the ‘Spring’).

Then there’s a final movement with another distinctive Schumann touch – a sense of unfettered energy and joy: the Romantic spirit let loose.

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1

Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto (he later wrote a second, plus a single movement of a third) is one of the best-loved in the repertoire. In particular, it’s a concert favourite thanks to its abundance of ‘big tunes’.

The first two minutes or so set out the concerto’s stall, with a dramatic beginning – a short, declamatory horn theme greeted with sharp, penetrating orchestral chords. The piano then takes up the theme, spinning it into a wildly Romantic and swooning melody.

Did you know: the first movement’s minor key theme is a Ukrainian folk melody. Tchaikovsky heard the melody being performed by blind Ukrainian musicians at a market in Kamianka, near Kyiv.

Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2

Shostakovich’s two piano concertos see the composer letting his hair down, with music of a bracing lightness and sometimes frenetic energy. This is not the world of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 (or indeed of the String Quartet No. 8).

Or at least, this is true of the two concertos’ outer movements. A sense of fun and adventure is all to the fore here. The final movements, in particular, have an infectious sense of flippancy and fun.

However, in both cases, these outer movements bookend a centrepiece of great feeling. We’ve chosen the Second Piano Concerto because its central movement is, simply, one of the most beautiful things we have heard (not what you might be expecting from Shostakovich), from within the piano concerto repertoire or beyond.

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