10 Best: Concertos

Or concerti to the informed, pedantic wordsmith.

This week I played a concert featuring the Dvorak Cello Concerto, played fabulously by a gentleman named Matt Johnson, a member of the Kansas City Symphony.  Very musical, sweet tone, good approach to the piece…I enjoyed it immensely.  It got me thinking to myself…

What if I were to combine my love for music with my love for ranking things and compiling lists in an entirely subjective fashion?  We needn’t wonder what that would look like any longer, because I intend to start right now with a look at the 10 Best Concertos.

When I was a young, inexperienced horn player, I would often complain that the concert halls were constantly filled with solo appearances by violin, cello, and piano.  My reasoning was simple: they’re flashier instruments than horn, trumpet, oboe, or flute.  It wasn’t very long that I discovered the truth: the music written for the big 3 solo instruments is light years better than most everything else.  There are some exceptions, but overwhelmingly the music is of vastly superior quality.

My ranking system is based on many complicated factors, ranging from how I feel about these works to how I feel about these works in relation to one another to how I feel when I perform or listen to these works.  Bearing that sophisticated criteria in mind:

Honorary #11

Carl Maria von Weber–Concertino for Horn and Orchestra

Because it has to be listed somewhere, I’m making an honorary no. 11.  If you don’t know this piece, look into it.  Terribly difficult for the soloist (IMO much more so than other examples like the Gliere or Strauss 2nd), but genuinely one of the most delightful pieces of music regardless of period, style, or genre.  And as if charm weren’t enough, Weber uses multiphonics in the cadenza, where by the hornist plays a pitch and hums a note at the same time to create chords…only about 120 years ahead of its time.

Recommended recording: Hermann Baumann, Masur/Gewandhausorchester Leipzig


Elgar–Cello Concerto

Purportedly an introspective look at the feelings Elgar was dealing with while confronting the post WWI scene and his own mortality, it certainly is a burdensome work in many respects, but in all good ways.  At times heavy, at times lighter than an insect, at all times filled with Elgar’s mastery of texture and orchestration, and a great solo part.  A glass case of emotions…anybody?

Recommended recording: Jacqueline du Pre, Barbirolli/London Symphony


Robert Schumann–Piano Concerto

It’s hard to imagine a more arresting beginning to a piece of music…huge chord, awesome descending line in the solo piano, gorgeous oboe melody (when is an oboe melody not gorgeous?).  Quite literally a perfectly constructed piece, perfectly paced, and with a perfect balance between solo and orchestra.  Why is it ranked 9th?  I don’t know.

Recommended recording: Sviatoslav Richter, Matacic/Monte Carlo National Orchestra


Samuel Barber–Violin Concerto

The 2nd movement is in the running for best movement on this list (what was that about gorgeous oboe melodies?), but the whole concerto is bad ass.  Like most everyone else, I find the 3rd movement a little disjointed in comparison to everything before it, but it’s also about the most exciting 4 minute moto perpetuo you’ll ever hear.

Recommended recording: Elmar Oliveira, Slatkin/St. Louis Symphony


Alexander Arutiunian–Trumpet Concerto

Insane?  Yes.  But it is my favorite wind concerto, bar none.  Written for the unrivaled king of Russian trumpet players, Timofei Dokschitzer, it has everything you’d want: flash, drama, huge trumpet sound, some really sweet legatos, and an awesome cadenza.  It doesn’t hurt that the beginning grabs you by the throat and holds on for the entire 20 minutes.  Look into this, stat.

Recommended recording: Timofei Dokschitzer, Rozhdestvensky/Bolshoi Theater Orchestra


Pitor Ilyich Tschaikovsky–Violin Concerto

Dismissed as too difficult by a few soloists, Adolph Brodsky (yes, THE Adolph Brodsky) premiered the piece with Hans Richter in 1881.  Eduard Hanslick thought it sucked, but he thought Wagner sucked too, so he’s kind of an idiot on occasion.  Turns out they were right about it being difficult, but it’s also awesome.  A good friend once compared this piece to a blonde porn star with huge, probably fake boobs, and I like that comparison (not so crazy about blondes or huge, fake boobs, but whatever).  Flashy, yes, but popular with good reason.

Recommended recording: David Oistrakh, Rozhdestvensky/Moscow Radio Symphony (DVD)


Dmitri Shostakovich–Piano Concerto no. 1

Written early in his career, before his friends all got killed and Stalin was mean to him (as a wise man once told me).  Which only proves that he could write heart-wrenching and satirical music regardless of the political circumstances.  ALMOST a double concerto, but at any rate featuring a prominent trumpet part.  The last movement quotes Haydn, marking a meeting of two of the all-time satirists in music history.  This piece is gold.

Recommended recording: Mikhail Rudy, Jansons/Berlin Philharmonic/Ole Edvard Antonsen


Sergei Rachmaninov–Piano Concerto no. 2

Popular with Hollywood, appearing in almost a dozen films, including the dreaful Spider-Man 3. Written after Rachmaninov had overcome writer’s block and a little bit of clincial depression for good measure.  The 1st movement might belie that a little bit, but the 3rd movement is quite simply one of the most alluring movements in all of music, with a theme as eminently whistlable as the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the standard for classical whistling.

Recommended recording: Jeno Jando, Lehel/Budapest Symphony


Johannes Brahms–Violin Concerto

On the subject of pieces being perfect…  Like so much of what Brahms wrote, this is perfect.  Great orchestral introduction, the greatest solo entrance in the repertoire, and a huge movement constructed with a complete mastery of form.  Beautiful 2nd movement (with a gorgeous oboe melody!), and a gypsy-ish 3rd movement which I almost always associate with There Will Be Blood now (I’M FINISHED!).  I feel guilty not ranking this #1, and I’m not entirely sure I’m comfortable not doing so, but my gut is huge and tells me otherwise…

Recommended recording: Nathan Milstein, Steinberg/Pittsburgh Symphony


Antonin Dvorak–Cello Concerto

A piece to be admired for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is conviction.  Written for the composer’s cello-playing friend Hanus Wihan (with some input from Victor Herbert, the Babes in Toyland dude!), Dvorak emphatically rejected the suggestions made by his friend after the premiere (most notably for a cadenza in the 3rd movement).  Good call, because it’s an amazing piece as is.  Tuneful, grand, folksy, everything you love about Dvorak.

Recommended recording: Mstislav Rostropovich, Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic


Jean Sibelius–Violin Concerto

An incredible journey.  The 1st movement sounds absolutely 1000% like what I imagine Finland to look like…desolate, peaceful, turbulent, icy.  It’s a really haunting movement all around, and yet it has that borderline cartoonish 2nd section with the bouncy flute melody.  But that’s why we love Sibelius.  Beautiful 2nd movement.  The 3rd movement has more energy in 7 minutes than some composers mustered in their entire careers.  And the last 2 minutes of the concerto are almost certainly the music that will usher in the return of Jesus, assuming he takes the form of Lemminkäinen somehow.  They sound brutally unplayable, and yet also the baddest ass shit ever in the hands of a master.

Recommended recording: Jascha Heifetz, Hendl/Chicago Symphony

Let the record show that I acknowledge: the Haydn Cello Concerti, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, the Beethoven Violin Concerto and, frankly, all 5 piano concerti, 2 dozen Mozart concerti for various instruments, the Grieg Piano Concerto, the rest of the Rachmaninov piano concerti, the Berg Violin Concerto, the Shostakovich and Prokofiev violin and cello concerti (or Sinfonia Concertante in Prokofiev’s case), a lot of Bach and Vivaldi, the Brahms Double, and the Ravel G major.  Also let the record show that Schelomo isn’t a concerto, which is how I’ll be able to sleep tonight.

See you next time I randomly list 10 things I the order of my choosing!


5 thoughts on “10 Best: Concertos

  1. What the hell is wrong with you, not putting the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto on this list??!!! And you DO include Weber and Artunian? Your recent fever must have damaged your wits. For crying out loud…

    Here’s a challenge: 5 best 20th Century Operas. Go.

  2. Erik, I was ready to jump in and slam your list, considering you were listening to Bruckner at the time. (gross). But, I gotta say, this is a great list. I think I might’ve ranked the Sibelius #1 as well – that’s such a great piece.

    James’ challenge above is a doozy, though! I think Turandot was technically 20th century. The rest are probably crap.

  3. Recently, I’d have to include Nixon in China on the list, and I am really interested to hear John Harbison’s Great Gatsby opera; it seems like a story suited for opera. Probably one of either Britten’s Turn of the Screw or Benjamin Britten, although neither really fits my taste. And, dude, my friend Aaron and I saw Schoennberg’s Moses und Aaron as a concert opera by Chicago with Boulez conducting, and it was pretty hard core. Aaron likes “For the Love of Three Oranges,” but I think he just likes the name.

    I think I’d have included a Beethoven piano concerto or the Grieg, or the Brahms piano concerto. The Scriabin is awesome to hear but not masterful, you know?

    OOO! I forgot Berg! Berg Violin concerto is the shit, and Wozzeck is a pretty killer opera.

  4. Pingback: I was at a concert: Opening night! « Everything But The Music

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