13 pieces of piano music to inspire

Franz Schubert, Impromptu no.4 in F Minor

Composed in 1827 – the year before their composer’s untimely death – this impromptu has a restless, nervous energy about it. Part of a set of 8 impromptus, this precise and exact rendition is performed by the highly respected Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman. This is a piece which requires extremely nimble fingers and this is probably one of the clearest accounts of the work ever committed to disc.

The opening theme is presented, before being repeated an octave higher. The slightly awkward melody skips along, almost tripping over its feet as it goes…

As the music develops, certain patterns emerge. Schubert makes frequent use of syncopated rhythms, double octaves and scales. At 4.53, there is a momentary pause for breath whilst we

contemplate the themes that have gone before…this ultimately leads to a martial and energetic final sequence where the tension builds before bursting into a glittering cascade of falling confetti (or to be academic about it, a rapidly descending F minor scale!)

Maurice Ravel, Gaspard de la nuit, Scarbo

Composed in 1908, Gaspard de la nuit is a suite of 3 piano pieces by French impressionist composer Maurice Ravel which are famed for their notoriously difficult nature, restricting their performance to only the most adept and able of pianists. Scarbo – the 3rd and final movement in the suite depicts the nocturnal delinquencies of a small goblin, appearing/disappearing, darting in and out of the light and causing general discomfort to the night-time observer. Ravel himself commented of his work that he wanted to create an orchestral transcription for the piano. Judging from the incredible soundscape he created here which convincingly suggests a nightmarish world from which there is no escape or relief indicates that he might have achieved his goal.

Putting to one side the sheer technical difficulty of the composition, Ravel’s use of repeated notes, shimmering ‘major second’s and genuinely devilish sounding climaxes create a world of tone colour a noticeable step ahead of anything which had been heard before.

Edvard Grieg, Lyric Pieces, Wedding Day at Troldhaugen

Written in 1896, this piece was originally named “the well wishers are coming” and was written to depict guests arriving at a wedding scene to offer their best wishes and congratulations to the happy couple. Forming the 6th piece of Grieg’s lyric suite, the composition is in two distinct sections – the first optimistic and cheerful, the second more reflective and inward looking.

The tuneful and symmetrical melody is laid out, before being developed further, culminating in a crescendo of large ascending chords – this takes us back to the original melody rendered this time with more weight. Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes appears very close to the music of his homeland and delivers this delightful piece with considered and customary vigour.

Franz Liszt, Mephisto Waltz no.1

Known as Der Tanz in der Dorfschenke (The Dance in the Village Inn,) Liszt’s first Mephisto Waltz is the best known of the suite. Composed and revised between 1859 and 1862, the piece quickly established itself as a mainstay of the concert pianist’s repertoire – its unique blend of drama, fireworks and passion spellbinding audiences ever since. This is one of the earliest forms of programme music, taking a cue from an episode of Faust.

The scene is a wedding feast taking place at the village inn; as Mephistopheles and Faust pass by, they are induced to enter the building and take part in the festivities. What follows are a series of devilish, maniacal scenes complete with wild dances, seduction and general wild abandon.

Generally taking around 11 minutes to perform, this virtuosic masterpiece is (typically of Liszt) very demanding to perform and tends to be restricted only to the most capable of performers.

Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Sonata no.23 in F Minor (Appassionata) 1st movement

An ominous, up-and-down melody quickly establishes the opening theme in Beethoven’s famous Appassionata sonata. Immediately repeated a semitone higher, the theme is brought more closely into focus, a familiar “fate knocking at the door” preceding a sudden, outraged helter-skelter down the keyboard. The theme quickly returns, this time backed up by the big guns – weighty, offbeat chords squashed alongside the melody as it races up the keyboard.

The violent outburst subsides into a more thoughtful section at 1.02 with repeated notes, as if to hold attention as we enter into the new key of Ab major. We now hear the opening melody against the rumbling backdrop of a more optimistic sounding major key. Descending steps lead us to a crusading section (1.58) with a number of panicked sounding diminished chords along the way.

Another rest for breath – that same opening melody recycled. Beethoven appears to be searching for the best way to phrase what he wants to say….a less warm theme picks up that same melody by the scruff of the neck at 3.03. We now hear a perfect storm of flying arpeggios; the repeated notes return and there is some terrific creativity around off-beat rhythms. We begin at 3.54 to wind our way back to familiar territory.

The main theme is tried against various, increasingly desperate backgrounds before it all descends into a chaotic descent – Beethoven opting to pummel the keyboard with that familiar ‘fate knocking on the door’ motif.

At 5.25, a new tack is tried – namely the major key. Through various permutations, we arrive back at a modulated version of what has gone before, albeit with clever and subtle tweaks. Familiar material is delivered before a point is reached where (7.19) it’s not exactly clear how Beethoven will resolve the material. Tension continues to build and at 7.48, he embarks on a somewhat improvisational sounding series of arpeggios until we find ourselves almost back at the start sifting through the burning embers. One last knock of the door propels us into a urgently searching coda which will resolve the movement once and for all – the bubble is ready to burst, before the music dies away into a F minor conclusion.

Chopin, Etudes op.10 number 12 in C Minor (Revolutionary)

Dedicated to his friend Franz Liszt, Chopin is thought to have written this etude around 1831 having been inspired to pour his own personal feelings of anguish into the composition having heard of the Russian attack on Warsaw during the uprising of 1830-31. Despite the original intentions of piano etudes to serve as exercises to improve certain aspects of technique, Chopin’s contributions to the oeuvre offer so much more than staid and stuffy practise scales.

These are wildly passionate emotional pastiches – this particular example painting vivid pictures of a chaotic and confused city and its civilians under attack from an enemy – women and children scattering, panic stricken. This outstanding live recording was made in Beijing by Chinese sensation Yundi – beyond what is an unquestionably impressive technique, there is genuine musicianship underneath the flying fingers. It is a crisp, precise and accentuated performance – audibly enjoyed by the enthusiastic audience.

Johannes Brahms, 16 Walzes op.39, no.15 in Ab Major

Written by the composer in Vienna in 1865 as part of a larger set of waltzes for piano, this lovely miniature has a heart-warming and innocent melody – laid out before being repeated, then explored and treated with brief decoration – each time, this lullaby like melody leads to a beautifully graceful ending. It serves almost as a wistful pastiche and nod to Brahms’ great friend Robert Schumann – a reminder of the shared musical language which appeared to pass from one to the other.

Maurice Ravel, Pavane pour une infante défunte

One of the better known pieces on this list, Maurice Ravel’s sombre and moving work served as a Pavane for a dead infanta. Widely considered to be a masterpiece within a few years of its composition in 1899, Ravel described the piece as “an evocation of a pavane that a little princess might, in former times, have danced at the Spanish court”. The pavane was a slow processional dance that enjoyed great popularity in the courts of Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There are clear nods to Spanish styles and sensibilities throughout – unsurprising given the composer’s half Spanish heritage – although Ravel had not composed the music with any particular princess in mind, rather this was intended to be a somewhat nostalgic musing on his part.

The popularity of the pavane later afforded Ravel sufficient encouragement to create an orchestral version, which was published in 1910.

Sergei Rachmaninoff, Prelude in B Minor op.32, no.10

From Rachmaninoff’s Тринадцать прелюдий (Thirteen preludes op.32) this famous prelude in B minor was written in 1910. The composer was said to have been inspired by Arnold Böckling’s painting Die Heimkehr (The Homecoming) and was known to have regarded this as his personal favourite amongst all of his preludes.

A rather sad, opening theme sets the scene. The late pianist Zoltán Kocsis executes beautifully, allows enough room for the music to breathe and doesn’t try to rush things.

As is typical of Rachmaninov’s music we hear sombreness, brooding and a patient exposition of thoughts. The opening theme returns at 1.30 (an octave lower than at the outset) and begins building with some purpose, as though our narrator is gritting his teeth and preparing to face a journey which is likely to contain pain and suffering along the way.

We enter stormy waters with heavy, crashing chords as the theme takes shape. We hear the distant sounds of hope and a glorious future on some far-off horizon all interlaced with the insecurity of “going it alone.” The massive chord at 2.20 is the sound of pure supressed emotion; the dam is about to burst and an abrupt swing into C Major at 2.29 is the release of all that pent-up Russian emotion.

The waters have burst through the dam and things sound as though they have calmed down, however those original questions have not been fully answered and the music continues to probe and demand a resolution – culminating in a quivering loss of control at 3.28…

At 3.53, we find ourselves back at the opening theme for a final examination of where we can go after all of this. As the piece concludes, an unexpected flourish into the major key is presented but is quickly wrestled back to B minor; it feels as though we will have to settle for a stalemate or compromise rather than the happy ending we crave.

Johann Sebastian Bach, “Schafe können sicher weiden” (“Sheep May Safely Graze”) arranged for piano

Lullaby-like, soothing and timely – this sounds a great deal like music from another world. Written by the grandfather of music, Johann Sebastian Bach back in 1713, this piece is part of the cantata Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd – also known as the Hunting Cantata.

Originally written as a soprano aria, this version was transcribed for solo piano and loses nothing of the original serenity or pastoral nature.

It’s no surprise that this melody can often be found playing in baby’s bedtime toys, particularly those which are designed to help the little ones get off the sleep. It has a beautifully simplistic quality but is by no means a simple composition – that was the great genius of JS Bach.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sonata for 2 pianos in D, K448 (3rd movement)

Written in 1781 when the composer was 25, this sonata is one of the few that Mozart composed for 2 pianos. Typically elegant with the emphasis on simplicity and clarity, this 3rd movement looks and sounds just as much fun for 2 musicians to perform together as it does to hear. Interlocking melodies and synchronised cadences make this a beautifully constructed piece of music to listen to.

Robert Schumann, Fasschingsschwank aus Wien, Intermezzo

Written in 1839, this short piece is the 4th movement of Robert’s Schumann’s Carnival scenes from Vienna. The mood is somewhat reflective and a little doleful. It seems to suggest that feeling of deflation when everyone has gone home after the party. The sound and feel of the music greatly anticipates Brahms who was a close friend of the Schumanns. Written in Eb minor (a fairly uncommon key due to the number of flat notes involved,) the technical difficulty for the performer here stems from the fact that the right hand must give a clear voice to the melody whilst subduing the undulating accompany notes – this is fairly typical of Schumann! After the opening material is presented, the music is transposed (raised to another key) and reaches a peaceful close in Eb major.

Alban Berg Piano Sonata, op.1

Written at a time when it was felt that music written hitherto had run out of sufficient vehicles with which to express itself, this is where the 12-tone scale came in.

To all but the most advanced listeners, this work will sound in the main rather harsh and dissonant – perhaps that there are many wrong notes in place of more logical, soothing ones. In reality, for a person with sufficient curiosity to expose their ears to the music of Arnold Schoenberg (Alban Berg’s tutor) and other representatives of chromaticism and whole tone scales, this sonata represents a reasonable entry point.

Interestingly, this is where a major fork in the road started appearing in music – whilst Ravel, Gershwin and Rachmaninov (albeit in different ways) continued to create music in their own styles, the key was the continuation of established musical frameworks – around the same time Berg, Webern and Schoenberg were pressing ahead and forging a new musical language of their own (collectively, this new movement was referred to as the Second Viennese School.)

Whilst this one movement Sonata has a nominal key of B minor, the constant shifting key centre and unstable atonality of the work mean that the music only resolves itself back into the home key right at the end. A rarely heard work (outside of the established repertoire) I believe it is underestimated in its significance and represents a brave submission at a time of intense artistic upheaval and the quest for a new musical direction.