Fevered passion often overtook audiences as they devoured the piano concertos of the 19th century
A hush fell over the room as the tall, fragile-looking young man with the long brown hair walked to the piano and slowly, sensuously removed his pair of green silk gloves. Moments later, he unleashed an orgy of octaves and a torrent of sound, driving his audience into frenzy.
The pianist, of course, was the great 19th-century Hungarian keyboard wizard Franz Liszt, and his legendary concerts were often more Saturnalia than musical soirée. Women shrieked and swooned in ecstasy, tossing their jewelry on stage. They fought over the gloves he purposely left on the keyboard; one woman reportedly snatched the stub of Liszt's cigar, carrying it in her bosom until her dying day.
This was the age of romanticism with a capital “R,” a time when the virtuoso was king and when composers were primarily interested in writing music of extraordinary immediacy and lyrical expression.
Liszt was the 19th century's most famous pianist, but he had lots of company. Every major European city, from London to Moscow, was home to an important composer-pianist (unlike today, almost all great 19th-century composers were also pianists), and they were all expected to write piano concertos. These are works — arranged for piano soloist and orchestra — of high musical drama, display pieces that allowed pianists to showcase their chops while indulging their lyrical fancies.
The following is a list of 10 Romantic piano concertos, listed in chronological order with their recommended recordings, that were once staples of the repertoire but are now seldom heard. They are expressions of a simpler and less cynical time — when composers were not afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. No doubt, the unapologetic sentimentality of these pieces caused them to lose favor with a modern and anti-Romantic public. Yet the lush lyricism and sheer sonic beauty of these pieces can still stir the emotions. They are all gems waiting to be rediscovered.
Beach: Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, Op. 45 (1899). Amy Beach was the first American woman to achieve international renown as a composer. That's actually an extraordinary fact because like most women of her time, she was strongly discouraged from pursuing a professional career. In fact, she had to teach herself composing and orchestration.
Her Piano Concerto is an imposing piece — nearly 40 minutes of pure passionate intensity. The piano writing is lush, romantic and energetic, and the orchestral part is as warm and lyrical as anything by Brahms. (Recommended recording: pianist Alan Feinberg with Kenneth Schermerhorn and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Naxos).
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