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Essential Classical Piano Music in Exceptional Performances

Updated on February 14, 2011

For those of you who love the sound of piano music, but are only vaguely familiar with the classical repertoire, this article would like to give you some idea about where to start listening. I will begin with a composer who didn’t have access to our modern pianos, but rather wrote for the harpsichord or clavichord. Still, Johann Sebastian Bach remains one of the most important figures in piano history. His 48 preludes and fugues, The Well-Tempered Clavier, has been called the Old Testament of the piano repertoire, and the haunting Goldberg Variations is a masterpiece of musical architecture that continues to spellbind new listeners.

Glenn Gould playing Bach

The next person in our list is Mozart, whose piano concertos continue to be played every season in all concert halls. These witty dialogues between piano and orchestra – delightful, sparkling, brilliant works – very much set the standard for that particular genre.

Maria Joao Pires playing Mozart

Mozart and Haydn Sonatas on Amazon

There are also important piano sonatas by Mozart and his older colleague Haydn, but the set of sonatas that is generally considered the greatest is Beethoven’s. This the “New Testament” of piano music illustrates Beethoven’s remarkable development as a composer. Among the 32 sonatas there are many extremely stormy ones, reflecting human struggle and heroism, but Beethoven’s music also contains infinitely tender and beautiful moments.
Schubert wrote a couple of amazing sonatas too, but has been mostly appreciated for his shorter works, like the Impromptus and Moments Musicaux. The particular mix of melancholy and playfulness in these pieces give them a very special place in many people’s hearts.

Sviatoslav Richter plays Beethoven's last sonata

Krystian Zimmerman plays Schubert Impromptu

The towering figures of the first Romantic generation were Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. Liszt, perhaps the greatest virtuoso of all time, displayed his remarkable technical invention in pieces like the Transcendental- or Paganini Etudes but also composed soothing and ethereal works like the Consolations and the Petrarca Sonnets. Schumann, a master of atmosphere and poetry, wrote a host of perfect little character pieces, often evoking the moods of childhood, as in Kinderszenen. Chopin’s Waltzes, Nocturnes, Scherzos, Ballades etcetera have always been greatly loved and cherished by the widest circles. His way of making the piano truly sing seems to speak to the heart of almost anyone through the centuries.

Valentina Igoshina playing Chopin

 Of the younger Romantics, Brahms made the greatest contribution to piano music. In his youth he wrote several works of truly epic proportions, like the three Sonatas. His later legacy consists of many shorter pieces, often only called Intermezzi, where his musical thought has been condensed but where the intensity of feeling remains as strong as ever.

Brahms Intermezzi with Evgeny Kissin

This (very incomplete) exposé will end with three important figures from the beginning of the twentieth century. Rachmaninoff, almost up there with Chopin in terms of being widely known and admired even by people with no great interest in music, continued the romantic tradition in his awe-inspiring Piano Concertos and in his Preludes and Etudes, full of intense, often nostalgic, feeling. Claude Debussy and Alexander Scriabin both tried to change the course of music history, each in their own direction. Debussy’s interest in Eastern culture enabled him to draw an incredible amount of colour from the piano. The evocative titles of many of his compositions (Clair de lune, L’isle joyeuse, Images et cetera) add even more to their charm. Scriabin’s first Preludes, Etudes and Sonatas show him as an ardent admirer of Chopin and Liszt, but later on he was prompted by his mystical beliefs to develop a musical language approaching atonality. His later pieces have an air of representing mysterious rites. This, like most of the works mentioned here, is music that wants to sweep you off your feet!

A "very special" piece by Scriabin

Remember that this is just a tiny introduction to the golden art of classical piano music, meant to wet your appetite for more. If you liked this, you'll also enjoy exploring a lot of other piano composers and performers. Please feel free to share your tips and other comments below! 


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      Guido 3 years ago

      Such beauty...

    • profile image

      sanam 6 years ago


    • Seakay profile image

      Seakay 7 years ago from Florida

      Loved Valentina. Very dramatic ending! I'll be back, I'm sure!