Listening List: Finger-Crunchers
Float around the melodies or bash them into submission, for pianists there’s no getting around the fact that some works are fiendishly fast and difficult almost to the point of making your overworked digits collapse onto the keyboard. Here are six of those dizzyingly virtuosic works:
Beethoven: 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli in C major, op. 120 (Wednesday, July 8)
A work that takes titanic focus as well as extreme skill, this is known as one of the highest summits a pianist must scale. And hope they don’t fall off.
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor" (Friday, July 10)
More Beethoven. If his final symphony, the Ninth, pushed an orchestra beyond previously-imagined limits, his final piano concerto, the ‘Emperor’ did the same for the soloist. At a mighty 45-minutes of the most demandingly intense music yet written, Ludwig van threw down the gauntlet for pianists for centuries to come.
Ravel: Piano Concerto (Sunday, July 12)
A lot of jazz musicians think of Ravel as something of a father-figure; the reason is clear in his piano concerto. Imagination bursts wildly out of every bar--and the pianist has to keep up!
Musorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition (Thursday, July 16)
Many of us can hum the famous orchestral version of Musorgsky’s most famous tone-poem (helpfully orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov) but the original version, for solo piano, sorts out the great pianists from the merely good ones--and leaves the only-average ones in the dust. Imagine having to muster enough range of expression and styles--some of them very fast indeed--to depict in music, not a single a painting, but an entire art gallery! Aaaand go.
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3 (Sunday, July 26)
While it was Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto that was written for a competition called "Battle of the Pianos," and is pretty darn challenging for a pianist--it’s nothing compared to his Third. Like his compatriot Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev was a fearsome pianist and poured his own mastery of the instrument into what is sometimes thought of as the most difficult piano concerto of them all. Well, since Prokofiev himself played the premiere, at least today’s pianists can’t moan that the composer has asked them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself!
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 (Wednesday, August 12)
Is it as difficult as the Prokofiev 3? Technically, perhaps not, but this Liszt work demands a balance of technical maturity and--let’s face it--flights up and down the keys to make the wrists ache. Is it as enjoyable to play as it is to hear? Probably not.