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Thread: Piano Concerto DIfficulty Rankings

  1. #1
    Seaman, Mezzoforte Edward Hanna's Avatar
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    Mar 2006

    Piano Concerto DIfficulty Rankings


    I've been dabbling with various piano concerti and would like some opinion as to how you would rank/rate various works.

    For example, what would be an ideal piano concerto to begin with (relatively easy or moderate)? Which are good for intermediate pianists...which are best left to advanced pianists, and which are impossible? Feel free to mix/match composers and periods.

    EASY/MODERATE/DIFFICULT/IMPOSSIBLE? I look forward to hearing from you

  2. #2
    Vice Admiral Virtuoso rojo's Avatar
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    Aug 2005
    Montreal, Canada

    Re: Piano Concerto DIfficulty Rankings

    Well, that`s a pretty tough question, but I`ll take a stab at it.

    First off, I would say that in general, one would have to be a fairly advanced pianist to tackle pretty much any piano concerto, because they`re generally large, major works. Guess it depends on your definition of 'advanced.' But judging from your post in the new members part of the forum, you should have no trouble with just about any of them.

    I would suggest maybe starting with some second movements of concerti. They`re usually easier because they`re slow movements, generally. Guess that`s pretty obvious, but Ravel`s slow 2nd mvt. of his Piano Concerto in G comes to mind. It`s really beautiful in it`s simplicity, although a tad on the depressing side. One has to be able to do a loooong trill at the end.

    I think Mozart P. Concerti are fairly accessible- my favourite is his Piano Concerto No. 20 in d minor. The first movement is quite dramatic. There are plenty of light, cheerful Mozart Concerti to choose from also.

    I`ve only tried parts of the Tchaikovsky, and found it takes a lot of energy! But what a super piece. I`ve also tried parts of the Rachmaninov No. 2, and to do the opening properly, one has to have large hands- otherwise one can get away with rolling the chords. Truth be told, I haven`t got big enough hands for it, but I don`t like to roll the chords, they need (to me) to be solid, so I omit some of the notes. *sigh* Anyway.

    Well, that`s what comes to mind for now.

    I`m curious, feel free to post what concerti you have tried so far, and what your thoughts are. I find the problem with learning concerti is that few of us get the opportunity to have the full effect of the piece, what with the orchestra parts missing. Not many of us get the chance to play with an orchestra. Of course, one can have another pianist play the orchestra part, but... Any thoughts/experiences on that?

    Final thought- Maybe play the concerti you like to listen to.

  3. #3
    Seaman, Mezzoforte Edward Hanna's Avatar
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    Mar 2006

    Re: Piano Concerto DIfficulty Rankings

    Thank you rojo for your remarks.

    My intent with this thread is to try to put together a suggested course of study for those wishing to play concerti. Music Minus One has about 60 concerti that they sell, where you get the score and a CD with orchestra, including tracks minus the piano so you can play along. I'd like to start with something simple, master that, then move along to something more difficult, but it's hard to get opinion as to how difficult each one is. They run about $40.00 so you don't want to gamble a lot with something you could never play.

    My first concerto attempt was Beethoven #1. I purchased a Music Minus One CD and started to learn it, but the CD tempo was so fast I couldn't keep up and lost interest.

    Since then Music Minus One has started including a 20% slower tempo CD as well, so it's easier to feel the sensation of playing with the orchestra while you're learning the piece...very exciting. I'm sure it's nothing like the real thing, but I haven't had many offers lately to play with any orchestras, so it will have to do.

    That being said, I've dabbled in the following concerti:

    Beethoven #1 - I'd say moderately difficult. I haven't mastered it yet but I can play through it.

    Beethoven #2 - (actually the first written by Beethoven) - I just started looking at this one and it seems easier than #1, even though it's in B-flat Maj as opposed to #1 (C Major).

    Rachmaninoff #2 - one of my favorites, and I think it's accessible, but definitely a difficult one to master. Also, the tempi varies through the piece and it's hard to sense what the CD orchestra is doing without the conductor.

    Grieg #1 - A classic, and I haven't spent much time with it, but it's no picnic either

    Mozart #5 - I picked this one because I felt it would be easier to learn, and I was correct. I haven't mastered it either but I think I can nail it in a month or two. It's very runny (massive quantities of 16th runs). It's also a very playful concerto, and the Music Minus One set also includes the Rondo and Variations at the end.

    Prokofiev #1 and #3 - Whew! #3 is my all-time favorite but I don't anticipate learning this one in my lifetime...I work full-time and can only practice about 30 min. a day. #1 seems a bit more accessible, but still definitely VERY DIFFICULT! (at least to me).

    If anyone else has any input I'd love to hear it.


  4. #4
    Recruit, Pianissimo
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    Jan 2010
    I guess this thread is already irrelevant, but I wish to add my comments, for others, like me, who find themselves reading it further down the road.

    I am an amateur pianist. That is to say, pianism is not, nor was it ever my primary occupation, ambition or interest. I've been studying the piano going on 13 years now, with two long hiatuses interspersed. However, my musical appetite and drive have never been stronger.

    For the amateur player, playing a piano concerto is akin to an amateur athlete running an Olympic marathon. You must prepare yourself for a challenge unlike never before. The piano concerto has long been considered to ultimate expression of keyboard virtuosity, and as such, composers have let their ambition and vision run rampart in writing these amazing pieces.
    When taking on such a challenge, it is important to keep in mind these facts. Preparing a piano concerto can take years (again, for an amateur), so you must not expect too much of yourself lest you end up frustrated and disappointed. Study the piece in small portions, at a comfortable tempo. Devote yourself to playing musically and with expression, while overcoming technical difficulties slowly and with dedication. Listen to recordings if you wish, but when seating yourself to your task, ignore the tempo you just heard, and play slowly but confidently. Nothing grates on the nerves more than an attempt by an unprepared performer to achieve great speed.
    As far as Minus One recordings go, they are a great novelty to have, but terribly difficult to work with. A record has no feeling, as no connection to you. The record runs blithely on, not only when you blunder, but even if you take a moment longer on a note to achieve the proper expression. Do not play with a Minus One before you have spent long enough with the piece to be able to play even the difficult passages comfortably. I would not focus on playing with the recording as a goal unto itself. Instead, find a pianist friend (or teacher) willing to play the orchestra's reduction.

    A few tips.
    First and foremost, only play a concerto you truly love. If you're going to apply yourself to this daunting task, it should be with the zest and passion that come from an honest connection to a piece.
    I would recommend acquainting yourself with a variety of concerti from different time-periods and composers. To begin with, I would never attempt to play a full concerto. I would stick to playing a single movement. Middle (2nd) movements are usually slower and more filled with expression. I'd suggest playing one of these. Should you wish to try something more demanding and virtuoso, go for an opening movement. Closing movements are of essence more demanding technically and more brilliant, and are usually designed to showcase the soloists technical abilities.
    Acquaint yourself with the piece's history and the composer's work. Playing a Mozart concerto? Play through a few of his sonatas to get a feel for his style.

    Now, the rankings!
    In my humble opinion, the Mozart concerti are the most accessible. However, the more dramatic ones, such as no. 20, are particularly difficult, to the disappointment of those of a more romantic character (such as myself).
    If you are a fan of Herr Bach, he wrote a few keyboard concerti that are truly spectacular.
    Beethoven's concerti require solid grounding in his sonatas.
    In the romantic period, the Schumann concerto in A minor, the first Brahms concerto, and the two concerti by Chopin are all very characteristic of their writers and of the period. Check out the score for yourself to see if they are right for your level and skill. I've been working on Schumann's first movement for a year and have surprised myself with the results.

    Stay far, far away from concerti written by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Liszt and Prokofiev. They are incredibly demanding.
    I've heard somewhere that the most difficult piano concerti ever written were Tchaikovsy's 1st and Rachmaninoff's 3rd. Schonberg's concerto is also considered impossible, though for a different reason. Do not attempt any of the three unless you are a masochist.

    Hope my comments are of help to you and others looking in on this thread.

  5. #5
    Commodore con Forza
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    Oct 2008
    If Beethoven's first two concerti were done in 'reverse' order, Chopin's two piano concerti were also composed in 'reverse' order. The numbering was from publishing dates.

    Some piano concerti, including Tchaikovsky's, were at first considered "impossible" to play, and that was the verdict of some of his teachers!! As romping as the second one is, it's less often performed, supposedly because, in the second movement, pianists don't like to share the limelight with two other players. Neverthless, the piece is a gem. There was once a recording of it by Gary Graffman, before he injured his right hand.

    But, as mentiioned above, piano concerti aren't for beginners.

  6. #6
    Apprentice, Piano
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    Jan 2010
    While it is true that concerti are really for the advanced,
    maybe it could be accomplished beginning with Concertos written for students, and concertinos by composers writing somewhat smaller works before attempting a Mozart or even a Beethoven concerto.

    for example, Catherine Rollins (american? im not sure...) has written "concertos" with all three movements for students, and Alec Rowley (english) and Kabelevsky have written concertos for "youth" and are fairly hard but i would say that they are a step easier than a mozart, also nice to have an easier concerto in a style that is not straightforward and classical.
    then i agree, Mozart would come next, and then Shostakovich concerti arent that bad, then Greig and Beethoven and Chopin , Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.


  7. #7
    Captain of Water Music Montefalco's Avatar
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    May 2010
    I have been playing the piano for around 10 years, and the first concerto I have looked at is Grieg's. It is difficult to learn at first, but a lot of the material, especially when the orchestra holds the melody line, is just chords, scales and arpeggios which take relatively little time to learn. I have also heard that Schumann's piano concerto, and the Beethoven 2 and 3 are good to start with.

  8. #8
    Vice Admiral Virtuoso wljmrbill's Avatar
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    Feb 2009
    Taylors, South Carolina, USA
    Might be off the beaten track for most.. I think a good beginning for this area of study is. "Rhapsody in Blue" even if a modern work and gives one a chance to play with an orchestra ( or many recordings)then to Greg's A Minor Concerto. I am mainly an organist but these I performed with piano.I have worked on others during my lifetime and all present many challenges for sure.... the old rule..Practice, Practice,Practice.. takes care of the problem always.
    ....To play only what is written is the domain of science. To realize what is not written is the domain of art."
    - Jean Langlais

    I wish you the Best for each day, now and always.


  9. #9
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Feb 2007
    Sydney, Australia
    it's a difficult question to be perfectly frank as what is "easy" to one might very well be a Mozart concerto, yet the same person may sail through Brahms' second. Totally subjective is my two cents' worth ... however if you have to be so obsessed with knowning which is the hardest, go to any international piano concerto competition website and see what they are expecting their performers to play ...
    I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
    —Albert Einstein.

  10. #10
    Admiral Honkenwheezenpooferspieler Corno Dolce's Avatar
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    Sep 2007
    Moscow, Russia
    I echo CT64's sentiments but I'll add that Tchaikovsky's 2nd in G Major and Rachmaninoff's 3rd will tax most performers - And utterly so........
    *If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything that he asks* -Abba Zeno-

    *Protagoras: "Truth is subjective. What is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me. Your opinion is true by virtue of its being your opinion."

    *Socrates: "My opinion is: Truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you are in absolute error. Since this is my opinion, then according to your philosophy you must grant that it is true."

    "Improvisational Art":

  11. #11
    Captain of Water Music Montefalco's Avatar
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    I've never seen the score, but I think that Ligeti's piano concerto would be extremely difficult.

  12. #12
    Recruit, Pianissimo
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    Jan 2011

    Top Ten Concerti

    To Ed and All,

    I'm pretty sure this thread is null and void at this stage but perhaps someone may see it in time.

    I would like to offer my opinion and professional pianist in the hopes that it may be of some use.

    With regard to having a ''Top Ten'' is hard to say because most pianists will find different aspects of technique and showmanship difficult to overcome and not everyone will have the same opinion. I suppose from an Amateur point of view in choosing concerti is a question accessibility in terms of technique. How hard it is to actually get your fingers around. From this angle Rachmaninoff 2 and 3, and Brahms 2 are certainly at the top and Mozart at the bottom.

    However, at this stage id like to point out that one of the most difficult concerti to pull of is in fact Mozart! Everyone seems to think Mozart is easy and accessible. He is not. Mozart scales are not like other scales
    I would be much happier playing Beethoven than Mozart.....That being said we must all start with Mozart

    ''The Liszt'' (hehe couldn't resist!) in a rough guide of technical difficulty....
    1. Rachmaninoff 3
    2. Brahms 2
    3. Rachmaninoff 2
    4. Prokofiev 2/3
    5. Tchaikovsky 1
    6. Brahms 1
    7. Beethoven 3
    8. Chopin 1
    9. Beethoven 4
    10. Any Mozart

    I realise that many are missing (Lizst, Ravel, More Rachmaninoff etc.....) but i wanted to offer a rough sampling of what is out there. I would by no means consider this list to be any kind of definitive guide. Any piano concerto is a big undertaking and can take years of fastidious work to really be at the top level. I remember talking with Enrico Pace one day (super player!) and he said he spent about 4/6 years working (on and off) at Brahms 2 before performing it.

    Piano concerti are wonderful part of the pianists repertoire and everyone should have the opportunity to play one. I would keenly encourage any amateur pianist to find or make a small orchestra and give it a go! It is a lot of hard work but so so rewarding to play with an orchestra. It's like having a huge Music Minus One stereo on one side!

    Good luck to all with music endeavors! Keep playing Chopin Etudes


  13. #13
    Recruit, Pianissimo
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    Aug 2011
    So obviously there are many aspects to what is difficult and what is easy. Honestly nothing is easy. Playing a scale in such a way that each note's musical intention, weight, direction, and momentum in sound is delivered on the line of the phrase which is organically growing and decaying from the energy of the first note is incredibly difficult; and so you see if we are requiring that music be a work of art regardless of if you are playing one note or giant chords with octave scales in both hands etc. then everything is difficult and nothing is easy. In this regard mozart's later piano concerti and beethoven's piano sonatas become the most difficult things to play .... although it remains that scriabin etudes and rachmaninov preludes are technically more challenging than most things. So in order to make and educated summation of what is most difficult and most easy we have to only consider pieces whose musicality warrants the technical feats recquired to say what is being said. i.e. liszt's years of pilgrimage is something never frequently performed because he wrote something only he and maybe 50 other people could play and musically what's being shared is not that interesting.... atleast not enough that anyone would want to sit down and learn it.

    Anyway, this question asked about concerti not all piano repertoire. This liszt may seem unorthodox in what is considered most difficult but I am compiling this list based on a succesful combination of technical facility and musical meaning and expression.

    1. Rachmaninov Concerti - 3,4,2,1
    2. Brahms Concerti - 2,1
    3. Prokofiev Concerti - 3,2,5,1,4
    4. Tchaikovsky Concerti- 2,1
    5. Chopin Concerti - 1,2; Liszt Concerti - 3,1,2
    6. Ravel Concerti - 2,1; Scriabin Concerto
    7. Beethoven Concerti - 3,4,5,2,1
    8.Schoenberg Concerto; Barber Concerto
    9. Mozart Concerti- I won't list all of them out but the later ones are much more difficult etc.

    More accesible Concerti both technically and musically include:
    1. Schumann Concerto
    2. Grieg Concerto
    3. Haydn Concerti - 1,2
    4. Khatchaturian Concerto
    5. Dvorak Concerto

    Anyway nothing's easy ... it's all hard ...... you're only ever going to learn something really well if you understand it. so find something you want to vicariously express yourself and your emotions through ... so technically ofcoarse you may have limitations ... but i mean difficult things can be worked through ... most times.

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