Thursday, April 2, 2015

10 Great Pieces for Piano

The internet loves lists, but this isn't the only reason for little projects like this. It is actually a good thing to focus on what might be the most prominent, outstanding works for a particular instrument. It makes you think about it and, who knows, you might just stumble across some music you didn't previously know.

First of all, some restrictions: no pieces originally intended for harpsichord, virginals, clavichord, organ or other non-pianos. So, no Bach or Scarlatti. Perhaps I will do another list. Second, no chamber music or concertos, just works for solo piano.

Hey, this is going to be easy. But I don't need to do ten. I'm only going to need two. Here they are:

1. All the piano sonatas of Beethoven except for the two his brother slipped to the publisher when he wasn't looking (op. 49 nos. 1 and 2).

I choose Friedrich Gulda because I love his Beethoven. One of my favorite boxes of vinyl, purchased in the early 70s, was his complete piano concertos of Beethoven with the Vienna Philharmonic. The only player I might prefer in the Beethoven sonatas would be Grigory Sokolov, but, alas, he has only recorded a few of them. The Beethoven sonatas for piano are, in my view, the single greatest contribution to a genre for any solo instrument. And yes, I am considering the Scarlatti sonatas.

2. The Diabelli Variations.

And the Diabelli Variations are the greatest single piece of music for piano and luckily, the performance by Grigory Sokolov is available.

And there you have it, not only the ten greatest pieces for piano, but the thirty-one greatest pieces (subtracting those two sub-standard op 49 sonatas and adding in the Diabelli Variations).

What's that you say? What about Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninoff and all those other guys. Mere finger-virtuosos. It's better just to listen to the Beethoven, if you ask me! Ok, ok, here you go (in no particular order) some other great pieces not by Beethoven:

3. Chopin, Ballades

Chopin was a great pianist and wrote truly great piano music. The only reason he is not counted among the great composers is that he wrote only for piano. You could argue for other pieces by him, the sonatas, for example, or the preludes. But for me, the Ballades are the summit of his art.

4. Debussy, Preludes

Krystian Zimerman also does a superb job with the Debussy Preludes. Debussy wrote other great piano music, but these two books, especially Book I, are really extraordinary music that had a huge influence on later composers.

5. Liszt, Sonata in B minor

Martha Argerich does a very fine job with this, one of the few post-Beethoven sonatas to come even close to measuring up to the standard he set. As an alternate to this choice, I offer the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor:

6. Prokofiev, Sonata No. 7

For a 20th century take on the piano sonata you probably can't do better than one of the Prokofiev "war" sonatas.

7. Shostakovich, Preludes and Fugues

To make up for no Bach as he didn't write for the piano as such, I offer the 24 Preludes and Fugues in all the keys by Shostakovich inspired, obviously, by Bach. Tatiana Nokolaeyeva was the pianist they were written for.

8. Ravel, Gaspard de la Nuit

This is one of the great 20th century masterpieces of piano virtuosity and I doubt anyone plays it better than Ivo Pogorelich.

9. Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition

Sviatoslav Richter's classic live recording of this remarkably original piece by Mussorgsky.

10. Schubert, Sonata in A major

The middle of the three late sonatas by the last great Classical master. These sonatas were not even published until ten years after Schubert died and it took a long time for their genius to be recognized. Alfred Brendel is a great Schubert player.


If these choices seem a bit eccentric, you could attribute it to the fact that I am not a pianist, but rather a classical guitarist.


Marc said...

Thanks for this! Am looking forward, after Easter, to revisiting the lesser works on your list, Ravel's Gaspard in particular-- I listened to it for the first time only the other day because it had been noted here or somewhere in connection with the Boulezian list.

Bryan Townsend said...

My pleasure, Marc! Yes, I put up Gaspard de la Nuit not too long ago in connection with something or other.

Ken Fasano said...

All of Beethoven's non-opus 49 sonatas? Nah, that's cheating! :) What would be your top ten pieces counting individual Beethoven sonatas, Chopin Ballades, Debussy Preludes? That's harder. Perhaps the Hammerklavier? OK, but next to that how does even a single Debussy Prelude stand up?

Bryan Townsend said...

If I were to list the Beethoven sonatas individually, they would undoubtedly STILL occupy at least the first ten places in the list (possibly 20)! And yes, the Debussy preludes are rather slight, individually, in comparison. But some of them, "...des pas sur la niege" for example, are remarkable nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant selection of music and pianists!

A comment and a question.

Chopin was considered a great pianist mostly because he was a great musician. But there is plenty of evidence that he was technically limited. Certainly not good enough to play his own music at the level required of today's top concert pianists. In fact part of his bitterness toward Liszt was his realization that Liszt played Chopin much better than himself.

Whatever happened to Pogo? His downward spiral has been painful to watch.

Your other pianists are just spectacular! They're all in my pantheon. With special fondness for Gulda who doubles as a virtuso jazz pianist with improvisation skills none of his classical peers can match.

Anonymous said...

I think you ought to have included Schumann's Fantasie. I yet to have to find an interpretation I absolutely love: Horowitz works for me. So does Argerich. Kissin and Richter not so much. But it's such a crazy piece it makes Chopin sound so tame.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Anonymous. I was not really aware that there was general agreement about Chopin's level of virtuosity. Certainly he was a different kind of pianist than Liszt. His expressive and interpretive skills were very highly rated. Bear in mind that we may not have similar kinds of testimony. Liszt spent many years touring extensively so we have many eye-witness accounts of his playing. Chopin on the other hand, did very little public concertizing. Most of his performances were in the salon for a small, select group.

Oh yes, the Fantasie by Schumann would be an excellent candidate and I could easily have chosen it!