[The above title is from Victor Borge.]
Over the years I’ve collected a few scores to 20th century piano concertos. During the 2020 pandemic I had time to look over my stash and take a listen. There’s nothing complete or systematic about this overview, it’s literally the stuff on one shelf of my library.
Composers reviewed below:
Walllingford Riegger, Concerto for Piano and Woodwind Quintet, Op. 53 (1953). Ah, the delectable sounds of Mid-Century American composition.
1. Allegro. Nearly a sonata form, with a satisfying return of the opening material. The blocky unison “atonal” lines recall Hindemith but are thankfully more syncopated. The 3/4 almost swings, especially with a serving of double-diminished “jazz” harmony.
2. Andante. Sharp, Stravinsky-esqe. The work is enjoyable but at times the echoing between winds and piano is a shade literal.
3. Allegro molto. Fast, driving, begins in G minor. A hit! A palpable hit! Almost corny, but Riegger pulls it off. Ostinatos of an exotic nature grow in size and are answered by sections of slow counterpoint. The last bars recall the opening of the first movement, an unnecessary gesture in a work of such modest dimension.
Marion Bauer, American Youth Concerto Op. 36 (1946) Dedicated to the High School of Music and Art, New York City, this pocket concerto is perfect for juveniles.
1. Majestic. G minor. Slightly modal, colorful distant triads, naturally a shade obvious, but the requisite pomp ensures that it all hangs together. Next door to Grieg and MacDowell.
2. Dignified yet lyric. 6/8 in C major, added tone chords, more personal language from the composer. (In general, when writing for the young, composers get to take greater chances in the slow movements.)
3. Humorous. G major strut, Americana syncopations, a far-reaching harmonic plan includes long sections in F-sharp major and B Minor. Good stuff.
(The best piece I know of Bauer written for adults is excellent Dance Sonata, which may deserve repertory status.)
Leó Weiner, Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1923). Charming, somewhat modal work with folk elements that might recall the earliest work of another Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók.
1. Allegro amabile, quasi allegretto. The melodic shapes are lyric; in addition to Bartók, there are affinities with Grieg and Franck.
2. Vivace. Begins very strong with a percussive gallop. Both movements start in E minor and end in E major. While the orchestration and duration are of comparatively modest dimension, the piano part is virtuoso.
Robert Starer, Piano Concerto No. 3 (1972). The American composer focused on tuneful clusters: Bartók cut with cheerful Copland, with the accessible argument of someone like Ginastera.
1. Moderato maestoso, followed by Allegro. A substantial slow overture almost outstays its welcome before the pounding dance finally arrives. Starer’s music is just shy of masterful, in the end the self-same leanness of the harmony tires the ear. Nonetheless, it is rare to find an atonal composer who is willing to please an audience in such a frank fashion.
2. Lento. Naturally, Bartók’s night music pieces are a reference.
3. Allegretto. Lurches around in 6/4 with dotted rhythms, a drunken and atonal Gershwin.
4. Presto. The Tarantella finale is the best movement, with a lovely percussive frenzy and engaging wide-spaced melody.
No commercial recording exists, but seemingly almost everything can be found on YouTube these days. David Bar-illan was Starer’s virtuoso advocate.
Morton Gould, Dialogues for Piano and String Orchestra (1956). Gould is one my personal inspirations, someone who updated Stravinsky with obvious jazz and pop references. This obscure work is one of his best, and can be heard on YouTube with the composer playing the difficult piano part.
1. Recitative and Chorale. Moderately moving, The Recitative is filled with sparse literal twelve tone lines, but that is a feint, for much of the work is tonal, albeit with an overlay of heavy dissonance. The Chorale is a simply a plaintive thing in 5/4; the web Gould weaves around it is gorgeous and inspired, foreshadowing Thomas Adès.
2. Embellishment and Rondo. Brisk. A Prokofiev-style toccata, virtuoso, with dissonance hidden inside euphonious thirds, sixths, and much literal bitonality.
3. Dirge and Meditation. Slowly – with measured tread. The same kind of bitonal harmonic atmosphere continues at much slower pace. The Dirge contains march elements, while the 6/8 Meditation is at even keel. Gould’s string writing is distinctive, he’s an easy blindfold test. It all “sounds good” no matter the idiom at hand, which must be one reason he was commissioned so frequently.
4. Variations and Coda. Brisk and spirited. The conductor starts too fast, so Gould gently centers the beat where it should be. Gould was a hell of a pianist, and this is the longest and most complex piece I’ve heard him play. Fast music was generally harder for 20th century composers to pull off than slow music, but Gould learned his Stravinsky well and the finale drives in inexorable fashion.
The audience coughs loudly throughout and responds with indifferent applause, obviously uninterested in the miracle unfolding before them.
Carlos Chavez, Concerto for the Piano with the Orchestra (1940). A maniacal Mexican perpetual motion machine .
1. Largo non troppo, Allegro agitato, Allegro, Largo non troppo. 20 minutes of extreme busyness, a piano roll gone amuck, yet also redolent of something otherworldly and charming like the gamelan. Chavez’s harmonic language is unique, occasionally almost nihilist in carefree acidic content. Presages Ligeti. The historical recording with Eugene List and the composer conducting has dynamite pianism but the orchestra is barely holding on.
2. Molto lento, Poco meno lento, Andante Tranquillo. Some of Chavez’s orchestration ideas are pure genius, like the opening of the slow movement, scored for low piano octaves and harp. As with the first movement, many melodies are harmonized modally in fourths, yet the surroundings stop the effect from being an exotic cliché.
3. Allegro Non Troppo. Slightly more conventional, could almost be Prokofiev, a lot of notes just fly by…but then the syncopated bitonal coda is utterly inspired.
Vincent Persichetti, Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1940). Minor 10-minute work from a prolific American composer.
The lone movement scans as a suite, with various sections using similar material in varied styles. Some gestures are reminiscent of Darius Milhaud; others sound like a Hollywood movie score. Good use of the piano and the orchestra, everything Persichetti did was a professional production.
Arnold Schoenberg, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 42 (1942). A classic of the genre; the only 12-tone piano concerto to have a place in the active repertoire.
1. Andante. A Viennese waltz. The themes, textures, and theatrical moments of this obviously complex music are fresh and memorable. Certainly it is one of Schoenberg’s friendliest 12-tone pieces. As usual, Schoenberg writes against the piano as much as for it. It’s not exactly a virtuoso piece, except for how the soloist has to fight the composer every step of the way.
2. Molto Allegro. Dotted rhythms are ominous, the climaxes are satisfying.
3. Adagio. The first paragraph with just strings and winds is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Schoenberg. It’s rather a shame when the piano enters with more conventional expressionism.
4. Giocoso. Schoenberg’s uptempo phrasing can alternate between the relentlessly off-kilter and the hopelessly square. This particular finale works pretty well, there’s some genuine 4/4 drive almost worthy of Stravinsky or Bartók. The concerto ends with a chord equally beloved by Brahms and Stravinsky.
Roger Sessions, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1956). Well wrought, darkly atonal, and ultimately uncharismatic concerto from a great American composer.
1. Tranquillo. Between the 6/4 and the doubled octaves texture in the piano, the first bars are an obvious reference to Brahms. The argument is a shade genial, but that casual attitude is not entirely satisfactory considering how recondite the harmony. Sessions is probably trying to take it easy on the ensemble rhythmically, and the result is strangely square.
2. Adagio. Much better are the florid excesses of the slow movement, where the expressionist gestures echo across time and space.
3. Allegro. Like the first movement, something blocky haunts the 2/4 phrasing. You can’t write Prokofiev with completely atonal notes for a large ensemble, it just doesn’t work. Compare with Dialogues just above: While the greatest Roger Sessions trumps the greatest Morton Gould, there’s something that Gould understood about making abstract and grooving music for orchestra that Sessions didn’t quite get.
Alberto Ginastera, Concierto para Piano y Orquesta (1961) Argentinean expressionism, operatic in scope and impact.
1. Cadenza e varianti. Ginastera moved with the times. On the surface, this harmonic language is just as austere as any post-war, post Schoenberg composer circa 1961. However Ginastera had a theatrical bent and is willing to explore each idea at face value. When other composers of this era wrote “variants” or “variations” there is usually no way to tell when the different sections stop and start. There isn’t that problem with Ginastera, who holds the listener’s hand and takes them on a clear journey.
2. Scherzo allucinante. The pointillism, orchestration, and surface texture recall someone like Harrison Birtwistle, although under the hood the ideals are quite different. The piano part is hard, but unlike the scores of so many atonal composers, the writing relates clearly to the tradition of piano music. Anyone who enjoys playing a Liszt concerto will enjoy playing this Ginastera concerto. The ascending chromatic thirds in both hands, displaced by a note in the left, is a perfect modernist re-tooling of a technique already a century old.
Adagissimo. Many atonal works come to life in the adagio. Ginastera reverses the paradigm: he had no problem with fast music, and, in a rare exception for a 20th century concerto, this empty adagio is the least interesting movement.
Toccata concertata. A famous piece, celebrated by classical music fans and even covered by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Ginastera has final say on the percussive, folk-oriented, dissonant style created by Stravinsky, Bartok, and Prokofiev.
João Carlos Martins’s recording with Erich Leinsdorf is a gramophone classic.
Leonard Bernstein Symphony No. 2 (The Age of Anxiety) (1949). One of Bernstein’s best formal works is based on a W.H. Auden poem. The relentless eclecticism and patchwork structure is best suited for ballet, and, indeed, the work has been choreographed by Jerome Robbins, John Neumeier, and Liam Scarlett.
The Prologue, Lento moderato. Clarinets begin with a post-Copland melody.
The Seven Ages. Piano enters with a chorale. Is this a style we know from somewhere else already, or is it Bernstein’s own voice? H’mm. The variations have freshness and grace; in general, the more syncopated the flavor, the more distinctive the idiom.
The Seven Stages. Even better, with the piano and orchestra finally combining in counterpoint towards the end.
The Dirge, Largo. A bit of 12-tone theory informs a literal lift from Stravinsky. The orchestration is excellent. A second section that waltzes in a modal vein seems more like the real Bernstein.
The Masque, Extremely Fast. The best movement is the “jazz” section, with piano giving a bit of abstract stride with basic percussion accompaniment. The composer is still borrowing from Stravinsky and Copland, but the lacing of Gershwin — and something original and organic in abstract melody — is satisfying. Like Bernstein, Lukas Foss was another great composer-pianist; on the record with the composer conducting, Foss understands this post-ragtime aesthetic perfectly.
The Epilogue, Adagio. A bit of a letdown; Some pretty harmonies and melodies but few phrases feel inevitable. My antique score is before the revision, where Bernstein adds a final chord in the piano.
Again, an excellent work for ballet.
Leon Kirchner, Piano Concerto no. 1 (1953). Kirchner’s vital voice is heard clearly in a virtuoso work played by the composer. Dimitri Mitropoulos conducts on the classic recording.
1. Allegro. A dead intersection of Bartókian rhythmic bite with the harmony of early atonal Schoenberg. Not far from Roger Sessions, but Kirchner is a shade more playful, unafraid to riff on his melodic material. The form is reasonably stream-of-consciousness, with a long slow coda after a wild climax.
2. (metronome marking quarter note 72-76) A proper slow movement, one of the best on this page, evocative and sensuous, with bursts of angry recitativo in the orchestra displacing nocturnes at the piano. It is atonal music, of course, yet the ghost of tonal harmony is present, bitter yet not entirely forgotten, and even concluding on a pure B minor triad. Very impressive piano performance from the composer. Bravo.
3. (metronome marking dotted quarter note 66-72) This finale is long and discursive; the composer is going for an unusual form that doesn’t quite scan, at least to this listener. A glint of ragtime in the piano doesn’t offset the general feeling of impeding doom. The highlight is a mesmerizing cadenza.
Leon Kirchner, Piano Concerto No. 2 (1963) Leon Fleisher commissioned this work, and the December 1964 recording heard on YouTube must be one of Fleisher’s last performances before retiring from the concert stage. The second concerto is more difficult than the first but is still beautiful.
Adagio (followed by many tempo changes). The lone movement lasts 20 minutes. The language is austere — it may even be twelve-tone — but the piano and orchestra double a lot of material (much more than in the first concerto), giving heft to the abstract gestures. A long diminuendo is a successful close.
In the end, this is romantic music, poles apart from someone like Elliott Carter, whose own concerto was written in the same era:
Elliott Carter, Piano Concerto (1964-’65). A legendary work of legendary difficulty. A monument of modernism.
Two movements, many metronome markings.
I am glad that all musical extremists, including Carter, exist, but there’s not much for me in this Concerto these days. When I was younger I had more interest; at this point I find music composed in Carter’s late years (after he was 80) more appealing then something like the Concerto. That said, I will certainly jump at the chance to see this behemoth live if the occasion ever arises…
Vivian Fine, Concertante for Piano and Orchestra (1944). An idiosyncratic version of American neoclassical, where some phrases could almost be copied from the baroque era.
Andante con moto. The commercially available recording is okay, all the notes are there, but I wonder if the performers are truly alert to how absurd this music is. Fine wrote in varied styles later, but this piece seems to be on the ironic spectrum, somewhere between Shostakovich and Schnittke. Or, at least, looking at the music that way would be one way to resolve the tension between concordant and discordant phrases.
Allegro risoluto. The quicker music is less problematic, it can just be played straight. Truly a strange aesthetic, a Brandenburg concerto gone just slightly amuck. I feel close to Fine because she was a close friend of my teacher Sophia Rosoff.
Arthur Honegger, Concertino for Piano and Orchestra (1925). An early and very “French” work from Honegger. Stravinsky was influenced by Debussy, in turn Honegger took much from Stravinsky.
Allegro molto moderato. The conversation between piano and orchestra in E Major is unfathomably literal before the forces combine and the music takes on weight.
Larghetto sostenuto. Honegger’s harmonic genius is more evident in the nocturne. The most successful movement, and over in a blink of an eye.
Allegro. Borrows from The Rite of Spring, but a glint of Gershwin blues in G foreshadows the Ravel concerto. Amusing ending. A good specimen of “jazz” as an influence on European concert composers.
Honegger would write more durable music later on.
Bela Bartók, Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945). A blissful masterpiece, the last romantic concerto to enter the active international repertoire.
1. Allegretto. E major, very tonal; the overt Hungarian harmonic spices are next door to Gershwin and the blues. The first theme has genuine melodic inspiration; the whole movement is unforgettable.
2. Adagio religioso. The avant-garde “night music” Bartók composed in slow movements is one of the biggest influences on much other music heard on this page. For the slow movement of Concerto 3, Bartók returns to older styles, chorales and even Gregorian chant, before the “night music” finally begins. The chorale reprise with piano garnish strongly recalls Beethoven.
3. Allegro vivace. 3/8 rondo to finish. In common with a few Bartók finales, the balance of old and new is a shade contrived, especially when compared to the effortless flow of the first movement of this concerto. The fugal section is truly out of place. Still, one of the greatest concertos.
Samuel Barber, Concerto for Piano (1962). The most popular American piano concerto after Gershwin, perhaps? A wonderful one-of-a-kind listen, perhaps lacking the final bit of charisma of Barber’s very best pieces. The score is forever linked to the pianist who premiered the work, John Browning, a student of Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz delivered the Barber Sonata in unforgettable fashion; Browning’s recording of the Concerto has similar authority.
1. Allegro appassionato. The pianist launches right in with a fairly atonal and intervallic theme, answered by straight up romanticism in E minor from the orchestra. The ensuing mild syncopations sound better when played by the soloist than by the band. Shostakovich (at his least ironic) is a relevant reference.
2. Canzone: Moderato. Successful nocturne, although perhaps the least memorable movement overall. It’s an open plain of C-sharp minor, although many obviously dissonant pitches cancel any hope for another hit in the manner of Adagio for Strings.
3. Allegro molto. The best movement features a driving B-flat ostinato in 5/8, an answer to the B-flat salvo that ends the Prokofiev seventh sonata made famous by Horowitz.
Throughout the concerto the piano writing is truly inspired; one can imagine older masters like Rachmaninoff and Ravel taking notes from the younger American composer.
John Corigliano, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1968). Interesting and convincing blend of percussive dissonance and moody lyricism. The result aspires to be next to Barber, but the rather basic underpinnings of each idea puts it alongside Ginastera and Bernstein.
1. Molto allegro. Wonderful orchestration and use of the piano. After the opening atonal frenzy, the lyric theme is a real shock. (Bangs gavel, quieting the room: My official ruling is that it works, Corigliano is allowed to do this.) The sonata form is satisfying, the return of the opening material lands.
2. Scherzo. Octatonic, menacing, driving, action movie. Again, Leonard Bernstein seems to hovering in the wings, although Corigliano certainly is writing more complicated music.
3. Andante appassionato. Stern dotted ritornello answered by unwinding chorale. Nice, although for my money Morton Gould does this kind of thing in more personal fashion.
4. Allegro. Like the Ginastera and Barber concertos on this page, the last movement is the best, a flawless cacophony, in this case with really beautiful canonic echoes in the rondo theme.
Witold Lutoslawski, Piano Concerto (1987). After so many midcentury American concertos, where navigating this European form was rife with uncertainty — especially when compared to all the jazz masterworks from the same era — it is a relief to turn to an undisputed masterpiece from Europe.
1. (dotted quarter note = 100) The work begins with Lutoslawski’s characteristic “buzz,” with the orchestra having controlled spaces for aleatoric procedures. Lutoslawski explains: “This gives quite specific results, ‘flexible’ textures of rich, capricious rhythms, impossible to achieve in any other way. ” However, the really beautiful music begins when the piano settles into an expansive rhapsody, just barely breathing on tonal tension and release.
2. Presto. A perpetuum mobile of dancing light. All the gestures work, and while none of it is exactly new (as usual, Bartók is the primary source), it is all done in a fresh way.
3. (eighth note = 85) A dramatic solo, played to the hilt by the dedicatee Krystian Zimerman, eventually becomes a stern conversation with the band. The end reverses the opening solo.
4. (quarter note = 84) Lutoslawski wrote fabulous modernist chaconnes, for example the fiercely ironic one from his much earlier Concerto for Orchestra. The last moment of the Piano Concerto has a similar conceit, although in this case the argument is more normal. It works, but compared to the heights of the proceeding music, this movement is a bit of let down — in other words very much in the tradition of great piano concertos that fail to deliver a truly satisfactory finale (Brahms and Chopin come readily to mind). When Lutoslawski finally lets go of his chaconne theme and writes a stream-of-consciousness coda, the music thankfully surges to a successful finish.
At the end of my stash: two names familiar to regular DTM readers, Alvin Singleton and Scott Wollschleger.
Alvin Singleton, BluesKonzert (1995). Singleton obsesses over varied melancholy gestures. Possibly a masterpiece. The work deserves a new recording with pristine sonics and a more secure gait, although the live document with Ursula Oppens will always have historical weight.
The lone movement is quite bluesy in harmonic information, explicitly honoring the memory of that great abstract bluesman Julius Hemphill. As seen above, the opening piano cadenza takes the most bluesy interval, the minor third, and sees how much weight it will bear from discordant accompaniment. As the argument continues, various blues chords are dissected with a spacious and dispassionate attitude that must be informed by Morton Feldman. While not “minimalism,” Singleton nonetheless uses repeating ostinatos, and here’s where a new recording would be helpful, for the available performance lacks the last bit of laser focus required for the repetitive gestures to achieve maximum impact.
Scott Wollschleger, Meditation on Dust (2015). An amusing note in the score asks, “What would happen if a Richard Strauss tone poem was left out in the desert for 1000 years?”
Suspended; pale with rubato. Wollschleger has affinities with Lutoslawski and Feldman, perhaps even with Singleton (I first met Scott at a Singleton concert). But I’ve heard enough of Wollschleger’s work to know he really has his own voice: process music with a detached and rather brutal atmosphere, however with each harmonic corner turned just so.
For a long time there’s not much Richard Strauss to be seen, it is mostly dust, but after “the violins tune up” (the G D A E is heard at the piano, not in the strings) echoes of a once-verdant landscape are heard: an expanse of C major, a romantic high string melody, whole tone passages and so forth. Karl Larson is Wollschleger’s regular pianist and he has the measure of the glistening keyboard writing. Eli Spindel conducts the String Orchestra of Brooklyn in a worthy 21st Century concerto.