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Thread: Piano Concertos Ranked by Difficulty

  1. #16
    Senior Member pianozach's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by flamencosketches View Post
    I just finished listening to the Prokofiev 2 concerto and wanted to see where you had ranked it, as to my ears it sounded ridiculously, fiendishly difficult. There is this part:



    ... where I wondered how on earth he expected anyone to play that. I question whether he could even play it himself. Anyway, the biggest challenge, I expect, would be endurance. The first movement cadenza alone is just relentless. It doesn't let up for a second. Anyway, in addition to being insanely difficult, it's a beautiful, uniquely dark work. I gained a lot of respect for Prokofiev when I heard it for the first time.

    I see you've ranked Barber (among others) in a tier above this one. Really, the Barber? It's a beautiful concerto, but it doesn't sound more difficult than the Prokofiev 2, to my ears anyway.
    As a pianist, I can attest that THAT passage looks actually fairly easy to play, although a fast tempo WOULD make it challenging.

    The middle staff seems to be an editorial choice, and this could easily be notated on two staves.

    The left hand is merely a D major arpeggio and lydian scale [#4th tone] (except for the beginning low E bass note, and the F natural passing tone at the end).

    The right hand is also D lydian scales and arpeggios, except for the last quarter note value of the measure, where, again, there's the F natural [although notated this time as an E#].

    The passage is monorhythmic, so that's easily worked out. Yeah, 32nd notes, but for the most part they're all predictable. Except that there's a C natural (instead of a C#) in the second set of 32 notes, although I suspect that might actually be a "typo".

    Those two seemingly random quarter notes in the middle staff at the end of the measure are merely octave doublings of the notes on the top staff, although the first is an octave above, while the last is an octave below. Reaching these at this speed would probably require some rubato at those points, but that would likely be acceptable.

    As you mentioned though, endurance is likely the real issue here. I've not tried to play this, nor am I sure I've ever spent any time seriously listening to this concerto, but I HAVE played the 3rd movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. It, too, has individual passages that seem daunting, but are, in reality, merely a bit 'challenging'. I can play them . . . BUT . . . after several pages of these these challenging sections, it becomes more of a marathon, and you can get worn out before you get to the last several pages.

  2. #17
    Senior Member Joachim Raff's Avatar
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    Surely it becomes a technical exercise more than a musical one when the score is so intense?

  3. #18
    Senior Member pianozach's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Joachim Raff View Post
    Surely it becomes a technical exercise more than a musical one when the score is so intense?
    That IS the challenge. It IS musical, and when playing a virtuoso piece of this level, you not only must have the technical prowess to simply PLAY it, but you have to make it sound effortless AND musical simultaneously.

    This piece WILL sound like an etude if you cannot do all this. It may still sound impressive, and that's how I used to do so well at Bach Festival competitions as a teen - flash, speed, passion, and fire, but lacking in nuance and subtlety. Some subito dynamics would fool the judges every time.

    I'd also kick a$$ with Mozart as well - I would find every bit of musical humor in the sonatas and concertos and freakin' MILK IT like a scenery chewer.

    But that's more difficult to pull off with Romantic-era material - the super-advanced stuff requires far more maturity and focus IMO.

    But that's just MY wheelhouse. There are plenty of pianists that have their own areas of success and challenges.
    Last edited by pianozach; Feb-17-2020 at 18:03.

  4. #19
    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by pianozach View Post
    As you mentioned though, endurance is likely the real issue here. I've not tried to play this, nor am I sure I've ever spent any time seriously listening to this concerto, but I HAVE played the 3rd movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. It, too, has individual passages that seem daunting, but are, in reality, merely a bit 'challenging'. I can play them . . . BUT . . . after several pages of these these challenging sections, it becomes more of a marathon, and you can get worn out before you get to the last several pages.
    The Moonlight sonata doesn't provide serious challenges of a virtuoso nature I wouldn't have thought. My wife played it as a teenager in public.

  5. #20
    Senior Member pianozach's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DavidA View Post
    The Moonlight sonata doesn't provide serious challenges of a virtuoso nature I wouldn't have thought. My wife played it as a teenager in public.
    Um, . . . you may be thinking of only the 1st movement of the Moonlight Sonata [Actually the Piano Sonata No.14 "Quasi Una Fantasia" Opus 27 No.2]. (Don't be embarassed, it's a common misconception that the 1st movement is the whole thing.) That's the placid, calm, reflective, moody movement. But there are three movements to this sonata, per the custom of the day.

    The second movement 'presto agitato' is sort of like "filler". Inconsequential. A brief respite between the moodiness of the 1st and the stürm und drang of the 3rd. Flippant, nonchalant. Deceptive . . . a false throwback to a simpler time.

    The third movement is like a storm trying to blow your house down. It drops on you like a bomb exploding, blowing the 2nd movement out of the water. It is unrelenting, going on for over six minutes of unforgiving patterns in both hands.

    Time for you to have a listen to the whole thing . . . . , in context. You'll absolutely love it.

    Last edited by pianozach; Feb-17-2020 at 18:45.

  6. #21
    Senior Member flamencosketches's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by pianozach View Post
    Um, . . . you may be thinking of only the 1st movement of the Moonlight Sonata [Actually the Piano Sonata No.14 "Quasi Una Fantasia" Opus 27 No.2]. (Don't be embarassed, it's a common misconception that the 1st movement is the whole thing.) That's the placid, calm, reflective, moody movement. But there are three movements to this sonata, per the custom of the day.

    The second movement 'presto agitato' is sort of like "filler". Inconsequential. A brief respite between the moodiness of the 1st and the stürm und drang of the 3rd. Flippant, nonchalant. Deceptive . . . a false throwback to a simpler time.

    The third movement is like a storm trying to blow your house down. It drops on you like a bomb exploding, blowing the 2nd movement out of the water. It is unrelenting, going on for over six minutes of unforgiving patterns in both hands.

    Time for you to have a listen to the whole thing . . . . , in context. You'll absolutely love it.

    David is an older guy, has been listening to classical music for decades, and has been a contributor here for the better part of a decade, and his avatar is a picture of Beethoven. He certainly knows that the Moonlight Sonata has three movements, and I'm sure he was factoring in all three when he wrote that. I initially read your post as very condescending but it appears your heart was in the right place.

    Anyway, I would like to echo his sentiment: the Moonlight Sonata doesn't provide any serious challenges of a virtuoso nature, in any of the three movements. It's fast, sure, but it's all scales and arpeggios. I'm sure I could learn it myself with my modest skills within the space of a few months.

    Also, on an unrelated note, I disagree with your flippant dismissal of the second movement, it's my favorite of the three!
    Last edited by flamencosketches; Feb-22-2020 at 02:30. Reason: I may have been too harsh

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  8. #22
    Senior Member chu42's Avatar
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    I completely agree, the difficulty of the third movement is rather overstated. It's not an easy piece but nowhere near Beethoven at his hardest.

  9. #23
    Senior Member chu42's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by DavidA View Post
    Th3 Henselt is usually mentioned as fiendishly difficult although it doesn’t sound it.it apparently has long stretches as the composer had a very long stretch himself. Of course the art of writing a virtuoso concerto is that it sounds difficult as well as being difficult and something like the Rachmaninov 3 or the Tchaikovsky does just that. Always seems to be pretty pointless to write a very difficult work which doesn’t sound difficult and doesn’t take the audience’s breath away. Alkan is apparently fiendishly difficult but doesn’t sound it which is why pianists avoid it.
    The Alkan Concerto sounds plenty difficult to me. It has many flamboyant and sparkling passages, often heavily wrought with accidentals. I suspect people don't learn it as often because it is so long (nearly an hour) and contains far too many double notes and octaves to comfortably play in one sitting.

    A truly difficult concerto that has almost no virtuosic writing in it whatsoever would have to be the Brahms' First. Very thin and Beethovenian writing but immensely awkward to play, far more difficult than the Tchaikovsky or Liszt concerti that sound much harder. I don't think it is pointless to be difficult without the virtuoso element if the flamboyance is replaced with sheer beauty, like in the Brahms concerto.

    Quote Originally Posted by Roger Knox View Post
    I think the four concertos of F.X. Scharwenka belong on this list. They are attractive to listen to yet extremely challenging for the pianist -- Scharwenka wrote them for himself to perform. Steven Hough's recording of Nos. 1 and 4 is superb. In your very fine list, which seems well-prepared to me, Scharwenka's concertos would probably belong in your first three categories.
    I have indeed listened to the Scharwenka concerti. They are quite beautiful and look fairly difficult, but I am not sure where to put it quite yet. Most likely in the third category.
    Last edited by chu42; Feb-23-2020 at 06:33.

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  11. #24
    Senior Member chu42's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by flamencosketches View Post
    I see you've ranked Barber (among others) in a tier above this one. Really, the Barber? It's a beautiful concerto, but it doesn't sound more difficult than the Prokofiev 2, to my ears anyway.
    Both are extremely difficult and I would not be surprised if they are actually closer in difficulty than I originally presumed. However from what I have played from it, it is more awkward than the Prokofiev- which, despite it's huge flourishes is actually mostly pianistic. The Barber is also a less tonal which probably makes it harder to learn and memorize.

    Additionally, it is reported that Horowitz considered the Barber concerto to be impossible...
    Last edited by chu42; Feb-23-2020 at 06:43.

  12. #25
    Senior Member flamencosketches's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by chu42 View Post
    Both are extremely difficult and I would not be surprised if they are actually closer in difficulty than I originally presumed. However from what I have played from it, it is more awkward than the Prokofiev- which, despite it's huge flourishes is actually mostly pianistic. The Barber is also a less tonal which probably makes it harder to learn and memorize.

    Additionally, it is reported that Horowitz considered the Barber concerto to be impossible...
    What I had heard is that Horowitz told Barber that it was impossible, and that he rewrote it to be significantly easier. But perhaps I am remembering it wrong. In any case I'll have to listen with score in hand. It's definitely a towering and beautiful concerto that pianists should play more, but maybe they do not due to its difficulty.

  13. #26
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    Quote Originally Posted by chu42 View Post
    I have indeed listened to the Scharwenka concerti. They are quite beautiful and look fairly difficult, but I am not sure where to put it quite yet. Most likely in the third category.
    Number three or number two, I'm not sure either. Glenn Gould called one (I think No. 1) "a beast" and never played any of Scharwenka's concertos. There are some unusual figurations he worked out that are playable but require much extra practice.

  14. #27
    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by pianozach View Post
    Um, . . . you may be thinking of only the 1st movement of the Moonlight Sonata [Actually the Piano Sonata No.14 "Quasi Una Fantasia" Opus 27 No.2]. (Don't be embarassed, it's a common misconception that the 1st movement is the whole thing.) That's the placid, calm, reflective, moody movement. But there are three movements to this sonata, per the custom of the day.

    The second movement 'presto agitato' is sort of like "filler". Inconsequential. A brief respite between the moodiness of the 1st and the stürm und drang of the 3rd. Flippant, nonchalant. Deceptive . . . a false throwback to a simpler time.
    No I am thinking of the whole thing! No need for the condescension. Even I can play the first and second movements!

    And btw if you are going for a real virtuoso performance for the third movement, why not pick a real technician?

    Last edited by DavidA; Feb-23-2020 at 21:13.

  15. #28
    Senior Member flamencosketches's Avatar
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    How are the MacDowell piano concerti? Not in difficulty, but quality. Worthy of a listen?

  16. #29
    Senior Member KenOC's Avatar
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    I assure you that they are quite fine. (sniff)


  17. #30
    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by pianozach View Post
    As a pianist, I can attest that THAT passage looks actually fairly easy to play, although a fast tempo WOULD make it challenging.
    .
    Easy to play? Prokofiev’s second concerto? Looks pretty tricky to me if not to Ms Wang


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