*** To any music majors out there: please don’t crucify me for my lack of higher-level music training. I’m just a casual listener who really likes these pieces.
I’ve always loved the concerto format – it’s virtuosic, fun to listen to, and showcases many of my favorite melodies of all time. Some are certainly easier listens (Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak) than others (Sibelius, Bartok), but they’re all gorgeous in one way or another. The Sibelius Violin Concerto is icy cold but punctuated by intensely lush violin solos that epitomize the instrument’s capability of conveying passion.
Rachmaninoff’s 2nd and 3rd piano concertos are masterworks of virtuosity (the 3rd pretty much becoming the stereotyped “hard piano piece” – well, that and Fantasie Impromptu/Moonlight Sonata’s 3rd Mvt) and of course, are romantic as hell. Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G is a lot of impressionist fun in the first movement, and becomes very quiet and thoughtful in the second, with a flowing melody that Ravel has said to have “almost killed him!” while writing it. Dvorak’s Cello Concerto is pretty much the cello piece (besides Bach’s cello suite) for aspiring cellists – it’s deeply rich and incredibly soulful. There’s a ton to say about pretty much every concerto, but one has really stuck out to me in the last few years that I’ve been listening to it: Prokofiev’s 2nd Piano Concerto. My favorite concerto has been almost every piece on my list down below at some point, but I just keep returning to this criminally underrated piano work.
(You’ll have to check out the album on a Spotify account if you’d like to give it a listen)
Of the two groups of “easy to listen to” vs “more difficult listen,” Prok. 2 definitely falls in the latter. During its first debut, many listeners were said to have simply got up and left. A few even thought that “the cats on the roof make better music!” In our modern times, atonality and modernist pieces are probably taken a lot better by the ear, with experimentation in music having progressed as far as it has. After multiple listens, it becomes easier and easier to pick out what I call the “dissonant lyricism” of the concerto; the melody starts to unfold out of Prokofiev’s haze of seemingly random notes and chromaticism, and bits and pieces of a very brilliant, romantic tune makes itself apparent.
Prok. 2 is a gargantuan piece – in the first movement, a five minute, extremely difficult cadenza in the latter half of the concerto highlights a pretty dark and impenetrable fog of gliding chromaticism and huge chord leaps. In the recording, it’s not until 8:13 that the “lyrical” melody really becomes obvious; the left hand’s heavy chords work with the right hand’s endless arpeggiating to dictate an epic tune that’s been said to describe “implacable fate.” All of this climaxes to a colossal peak, where the rest of the orchestra return to blare an incredible melody that sounds absolutely apocalyptic; the end of the world is here and stars are colliding; fate’s destructive end is at last being enacted.
The 4th movement also showcases the “dissonant lyricism” that the 1st contains. Although we begin with a frenetic string passage, all of it dies down into a quietude at 1:51 that sets up our “fantasy” passage. Personally, I think this short passage starting from 1:51 is the most beautiful melody of the whole piece, and one of my favorites ever. The cellos are bare and enigmatic, providing the setting for our story to unfold: it’s a frozen Russian winter, bleak and bare from the hardships of life. The soft, minimalist piano introduces us to our lonely main character, trudging through this barren landscape – this story is going to be deeply unhappy. Our piano continues with a mysterious, uneven rhythm, before the horns finally join to begin the rising action. Here, our character’s emotions build and build until it finally reaches a fever point at 4:05 – a very raw outburst shows the humanity behind all the dissonance, and similarly exposes the humanity behind our tired and beaten character. This point is what I consider to be the pinnacle of our lyricism, the romantic core of the entire piece.
(Side note: Just listen to how gorgeous 3:42’s right hand piano section is! Our continually driving right hand is finally resolved by a simple F major scale. Yuja Wang’s rendition is very gentle in these small details.)
Definitely give it a listen!
*Forgive my lack of love for the classics Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt… I’m working on branching out! I’d love to hear about your personal favorites in Classical.
A list of personal favorites:
- Prokofiev’s 2nd for Piano
- Rachmaninoff’s 3rd for Piano
- Prokofiev’s 3rd for Piano
- Ravel’s in G for Piano
- Dvorak’s Cello Concerto
and others unranked but also loved:
- Elgar’s for Cello
- Dvorak’s for Cello
- Moszkowski’s in E for Piano (also underrated!)
- Tchaikovsky’s 1st for Piano
- Sibelius for Violin
- Tchaikovsky’s in D for Violin
- Rachmaninoff’s 2nd for Piano
- Grieg’s in G for Piano
- Chopin’s 2nd for Piano
- Chopin’s 1st for Piano
- Paderewski’s Piano Concerto