Solo Piano Pieces
The piano repertoire is the largest of any instrument save the voice. We start our exploration with a short selection of important works from the baroque, classical and romantic eras.
Chopin: Sonata No.2 in B flat minor
There’s a dark side to Chopin. Far from the angelic image of a quiet, dreamy man coughing consumptively at the keyboard, Chopin’s imagination when fully unleashed could deliver music of terrifying demonic power. His Piano Sonata No.2, dating from 1839, is perhaps the most original of all his large-scale works and flummoxed critics of his day. Two movements in which thematic material is fragmented and feverishly driven are followed by the famous Funeral March – written about two years earlier, but handily incorporated here – and the finale, a hushed skittering of the pianist’s two hands in unison, was once described by Anton Rubinstein as suggestive of 'night winds sweeping over churchyard graves'.
Bach: Goldberg Variations
This 1741 masterpiece by JS Bach was composed for the two-manual harpsichord, but that has never deterred pianists from adding it to their repertoire. Indeed, most of its greatest interpreters have played it on the modern grand. The aria and 30 variations, the story goes, were created for Count Keyserlingk, who suffered from insomnia and would ask the immensely accomplished court keyboard player, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to play to him to cheer his mood. The structure is one of many remarkable qualities: each third variation is a canon, the space of the interval between the voices increasing by one step each time. The variation after each canon is a genre piece – a baroque dance, fughetta, aria etc – and this is followed by an 'arabesque', often a lively and brilliant virtuoso piece. The last variation is a ‘quodlibet’, a contrapuntal meld of extracts from two popular songs of the day. Finally the aria returns – its notes the same as upon its first hearing, but its meaning, at least to us, transformed.
Liszt: Sonata in B minor
Franz Liszt was perhaps the ultimate pianist-composer, and the first to acquire a veritable cult status. His output for piano is vast – and somewhat variable in quality – but of all his masterpieces, the Sonata in B minor (1853) remains a benchmark of achievement for countless performers. In one grand-scale span that subdivides into sections equivalent to different movements, it is based on several motifs that are developed and transformed as the work progresses; so atmospheric is the music that it is sometimes thought to have been inspired by a story such as the legend of Faust, though there is no proof of this. For the pianist it provides a chance to display a vast kaleidoscope of vital qualities, from virtuosity to grandeur, rapid staccato playing to the utmost lyricism.
Schumann: Fantasie in C, Op.17
The bulk of Schumann’s piano music dated from early in his compositional career, much of it intended for the young pianist Clara Wieck, with whom he was desperately in love (they would later marry). Forbidden by her father to see one another, the couple communicated via music, Schumann sending Clara music that often contained musical ciphers; in the C major Fantasie, a quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved). But even without such moments of significance, the Fantasie would still be a masterpiece. The first movement unfolds in virtually a stream of consciousness, whirling through myriad states of mind and heart; the second is a triumphant march with a coda that has the pianist’s hands leaping across the keyboard like the proverbial flea in a jam jar, but with considerably more precision; and the finale, though restricted to the piano, is possibly this composer’s most beautiful love song.
Beethoven: Sonata Op.106 in B flat major, ‘Hammerklavier’
The mighty Op.106, the largest and most dense of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, sits just before the final three – perhaps the Eiger’s north face to the Jungfrau peak of Op.111. With a slow movement that alone extends to around 18 minutes (depending on tempo), it pushes both the piano and the performer to the very limits of their abilities. Rachamaninov may demand faster fingers and Liszt more outright virtuosity, but Beethoven challenges the brain first and foremost, in terms of everything from stamina to understanding of counterpoint (the final Fugue could probably dizzy Bach himself) to control of the longest and quietest lines yet given to the instrument at the time.
Schubert: Sonata in A major, D959
Schubert’s piano sonatas are a treasure trove of intensely personal music. The Sonata D959 is his penultimate work in the genre, written in the spring of 1828. Although either of its two immediate siblings – the sonatas in C minor and B flat major – could equally deserve the title of the greatest, the A major stands out for its slow movement, consisting of a meditative barcarolle that implodes into a chaotic improvisatory passage, in which Schubert seems to stare into the abyss. Yet this apocalyptic vision is soon countered by a glittering scherzo and a final rondo in which the generous flow of long-spun melody carries us towards the opposite extreme.
Brahms: 6 Klavierstücke Op. 118
It is difficult to pick one set of Brahms’s late piano pieces ahead of another, so exquisitely wrought are they all. Brahms turned to these short-form pieces – intermezzi, rhapsodies and simple 'klavierstücke' – late in his life, with Clara Schumann in mind. Beset by arthritis in her hands in advancing age, she was no longer able to play works that demanded virtuosity and stamina. Brahms – who had been close to her since their first meeting when he was all of 20 – wrote for her some of his most intimate, reflective music. Op.118 (1893) contains six pieces of contrasted character, including the well-known Intermezzo in A major (No.2) and, to close, a haunting and compassionate
Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61
Most of Chopin’s piano music deserves to appear in this list, but the Polonaise-Fantaisie (published in 1846) remains unique in his output. Combining Chopin’s passion for the music of his native Poland with his bent for ground-breaking structures, it is a concentrated, meditative piece that constantly defeats those trying to nail its significance once and for all. A polonaise theme appears after an improvisation-like opening; after exploring this at length the music seems to unravel before sinking into a hypnotic central section full of extraordinary modulations. When the polonaise returns it reaches triumphant heights before vanishing in a couple of shuddering trills – as if in a puff of smoke.
Beethoven: Diabelli Variations
With lashings of that rare musical quality – humour – Beethoven takes a rather flippant little waltz by the composer Antonio Diabelli and puts it through a musical hall of mirrors, transforming its character in every which way. A glorious feat of imagination, dating from 1819-23, it should never fail to sound fresh and startling. It was written, according to Beethoven’s early biographer Anton Schindler, in 'a rosy mood' and 'amused Beethoven to a rare degree'. One variation even opens with a quote from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The set ends, after a whirling, hammering fugue, by settling into a stately minuet, closing the set in a state of grace – in every sense.