‘Must-plays’ for pianists – updated

I ran an informal poll amongst my Twitter and Facebook friends, asking them to indicate which pieces they feel should be “must plays” in the pianist’s repertoire. This post is compilation of those thoughts. Thank you to everyone who contributed. Please feel free to leave further comments, either via the comments box on this blog or via Twitter @crosseyedpiano.

J S Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier, Italian Concertos, Partitas

The general consensus is that Bach “teaches you everything” (Melanie) and is “the basis of all piano knowledge” (Lorraine) – phrasing, voicing, balance, techniques such as jeu perlé and legato, “orchestration”. Master Bach and you can play anything. Bach was revered by many composers who followed him, perhaps most notably, Fryderyk Chopin, who, it is said, studied the ’48’ every day (he took a copy of the manuscript with him on his ill-starred trip to Majorca).

Mozart

I’m revisiting Mozart’s late Rondo in A minor, K511, at the moment, and I am struck, not for the first time, by how Mozart’s piano music presents his oeuvre in microcosm: operatic, orchestral, choral – it’s all there. He is also a master of chiaroscuro (light and shade), with changes of mood and shading often occurring within the space of just a bar or two. Mozart’s piano music requires great clarity and elegance. Never forget Schnabel’s comment “too easy for children, too difficult for artists”.

Beethoven – Piano Sonatas

Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas are considered to be the New Testament of piano repertoire (Bach’s WTC is the Old Testament). Learn any one of the sonatas and you’ll have a snapshot of Beethoven’s creative impulse, as well as insights into how rapidly the instrument was developing at the time. Beethoven pushed the boundaries, both of the form and the instrument for which he was writing. For all the clichéd readings of it, the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata (Opus 27/2) remains a revolutionary work, written by a composer poised on the cusp of change. His music is full of wit, humour, pathos & philosophy.

Chopin – Études, Nocturnes

I suppose it goes without saying that any pianist worth his or her salt should study at least one of Chopin’s Études and Nocturnes at some point. Chopin elevated the Étude from student study to a highly refined genre, while retaining the original intention of the ‘study’. They are all different, and individual, and they all offer opportunities to hone specific techniques. Some are very well known (the ‘Winter Wind’, ‘Butterfly’, ‘Aeolian Harp’, ‘Tristesse’, ‘Revolutionary’) which makes them doubly difficult to play, for one wants to do one’s absolute best by them. Learn a handful of the Études – or all of them – and you will be scaling the high Himalayan peaks of piano repertoire.

The Nocturnes are exquisite miniatures, some of the finest small-scale music written for piano, and studies in beautiful cantabile playing. The distinct ‘vocal line’ in these pieces lends great drama and profound emotional expression, together with the judicious use of tempo rubato. Many have decorative features such as trills and fiorituras, which, when played well, appear to float over the surface of the music. The influence of Mozart on Chopin is clear in these works, in their distinct melodic lines. For me, the best performances of Chopin’s Nocturnes reveal him as a classical composer, with understated rubato, and close attention to structure and notation. Chopin may be ‘Prince of the Romantics’ (Count Adam Zamoyski), but he revered Bach and Mozart.

On a more general level, playing Chopin’s music offers the modern pianist a fascinating insight into what kind of instrument the piano was in the first part of the nineteenth century. More advanced than Beethoven’s piano, it was still some way from the modern instrument we know today. Hearing his music played on a period instrument is fascinating and makes sense of his dynamic markings such as sostenuto, and his pedal writing. (The Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands, Surrey, has three ‘Chopin’ pianos, which he may have played during his 1848 visit to England.)

Rachmaninov

The landscape artist in sound, Rachmaninov presents the vastness of his native Russia in his music, and a sense of history. A reluctant performer himself (in a photo in the green room at Wigmore Hall he looks as if he’d do anything but play the piano!), he wrote piano music which is difficult yet so beautifully constructed that it is extremely satisfying to play.

Debussy

Debussy forces you, as a pianist, to totally reappraise the way you play, and how the instrument works. In a lot of his piano music, you need to forget the piano has hammers. Debussy’s own piano playing was described as “hands sinking into velvet”. I learnt so much about arm weight, lightness, and touch from my study of Debussy for my Diploma, so much so that I feel he is now required playing for any pianist, whatever level. (Even simplified versions of Debussy’s greatest piano works are worth investigation.) Debussy’s piano music also presents some interesting paradoxes for the modern pianist: we have this idea that his music is fluid and gentle. It was, relative to the prevailing style, but we have now gone too far now, and many interpretations capitalise, sometimes erroneously, on the “impressionistic” nature of his music. The Preludes, for example, contain many different moods. shadings, and exercises in touch and tone. Definitely worth studying.

Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Ligeti

I’m a recent convert to atonal music. I actually sat through a piece by Stockhausen in a concert earlier this week and enjoyed it, and I learnt a piece by Messiaen for my Diploma. It’s good to play outside your comfort zone, not least because it introduces you to new and different repertoire (I feel the same about Scarlatti and his cohorts!). Interestingly, younger students are often very receptive to dissonant and atonal music, because they have not yet experienced enough ‘straight’ classical music. I have also found some of my students like minimalist music, for the same reason.

This is by no means comprehensive, and is also very subjective. There are many, many more pieces and composers which could be considered “required reading” for pianists. Do please feel free to leave comments and keep the discussion going.

3 Comments

  1. Playing Debussy is also an excellent way of ensuring that students learn their leger lines! I remember a student smiling after playing the highest C on my piano. Further questioning revealed that hers was a Cottage Piano, only going up to top A, so she practised by tapping the wooden block at the end of the keys! Playing Debussy as it should be played therefore became a special pleasure for her, and she vowed to replace the piano as soon as she could afford to do so!

  2. I must’ve missed the poll– but this is a great list! They’re definitely must-plays. Great idea; thanks for sharing! I’ve been a big fan of Beethoven and Chopin for as long as I can remember– they’re always my go-tos when my student’s don’t know what to play.

    • Bach – ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ – cGrade 5 to advanced (post Grade 8)
      Mozart wrote some very simple pieces for piano, but his sonatas, although apparently easy on the page, are difficult (cGrade 5+)
      Chopin – Etudes (Grade 8 – post-diploma), Nocturnes (Grade 8+)

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