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Top 10 Concertos to Start Your Classical Music CD and MP3 Collection

A concerto is a multi-movement composition for one or more solo instruments and orchestra. The word "concerto" is derived from the Italian concertare, which means "to reach agreement." Concertos have been written for all the instruments on the orchestra, but the vast majority are written for violin, cello, or piano, as these three instruments all feature a wide, dynamic and expressive range.

Concertos first appeared in the 1680s. Early concertos emphasize the contrast between soloist and orchestra, tending to place the soloist and the full ensemble on roughly equal footing. Especially popular in the Baroque era was the concerto grosso, which featured several soloists. Around 1750 the concerto grosso declined in favor of the solo concerto, which tends to emphasize the soloist more than the orchestra. At this time the keyboard concerto rose in prominence, thanks to the development of the modern piano. In the nineteenth century audiences demanded extreme virtuosity from solo performers, and composers such as Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Tchaikovksky obliged by writing fireworks-filled concertos. Twentieth-century composers incorporated new idioms into their concertos and stretched even further the limits of the solo instruments.


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1 Mozart: Piano Concertos 20, 21 -- Vladimir Ashkenazy
Symphonic brilliance and pianistic virtuosity. Review...
2 Bach: Brandenburg Concertos -- Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Baroque bravura. Review...

3 Rachmaninoff: Piano Concertos Nos. 2, 3 -- Vladimir Ashkenazy
The most difficult piano concerto ever? Review...

4 Dvorák: Cello Concerto -- Mstislav Rostropovich, Herbert von Karajan
An American work by a homesick Bohemian. Review...

5 Brahms: Violin Concerto -- Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Reiner
The greatest of Romantic violin concertos. Review...

6 Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 -- Van Cliburn, Kiril Kondrashin
The incarnation of Romantic excess. Review...

7 Mozart: Clarinet Concerto -- Jack Brymer, Sir Thomas Beecham
Inspiration from a clarinettist friend. Review...

8 Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5, "Emperor" -- Stephen Kovacevich, Sir Colin Davis
The king of piano concertos. Review...

9 Vivaldi: The Four Seasons -- Anne-Sophie Mutter, Trondheim Soloists
The musical score to the film of Time. Review...

10 Stravinsky: Violin Concerto -- Hilary Hahn, Sir Neville Marriner
Modern music that looks back to the Baroque. Review...

11 Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto -- Anne-Sophie Mutter, Herbert von Karajan
A favorite of child prodigies. Review...

12 Grieg: Piano Concerto -- Murray Perahia, Sir Colin Davis
A Nordic giant. Review...


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concertos No. 20 in D minor, No. 21 in C major
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano and conductor; Philharmonia Orchestra

These two piano concertos combine orchestral brilliance with virtuosic solo work, making a splendid introduction to Mozart. The 20th, in a tragic minor key, moves from a dark and brooding beginning to an uplifting conclusion, and contains a memorable stormy outburst during an otherwise tranquil second movement. The beautiful middle movement of the 21st was used in the 1967 film Elvira Madigan and is one of Mozart's most famous pieces of music, while the finale brings the work to an exciting conclusion on a grand symphonic scale. Vladimir Ashkenazy is one of today's most versatile pianists and conductors, and he shows off both talents in this recording as he conducts from the keyboard. Ashkenazy makes the flurry of fast piano passages seem effortless while shaping the orchestra's sound perfectly. Best of all, these two concertos come with three more of Mozart's greatest concertos, all on two CDs for the price of one.

Similar works: Top 10 Mozart, Top 10 Classical
Johann Sebastian Bach: Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

There is no better introduction to the Baroque style than these six orchestral masterpieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. The works are in the style of the concerto grosso, which is an orchestral genre that features a dialogue between small groups of soloists and the full orchestra. Taken as a whole, the six concertos explore the diverse tonal possibilities of both solo instruments and orchestra. The first two concertos are festive, featuring horns and oboes, while the third is written for strings only and is more meditative. The fourth and fifth concertos feature virtuoso playing of the violin and harpsichord respectively, while the concluding sixth -- probably the most famous of the set -- has a jaunty atmosphere and emphasizes ensemble playing over solo work. The conductorless Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment gives a delightful performance on authentic Baroque instruments, and at less than $12 for two CDs this set is clearly a first choice.

Similar works: Top 10 Bach, Top 10 Baroque
Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concertos No. 2, Op. 18; No. 3, Op. 30
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano; Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin, conductor (No. 2); London Symphony Orchestra, Anatole Fistuolari, conductor (No. 3)

Though he lived most of his life in the twentieth century, Sergei Rachmaninoff's style was firmly rooted in nineteenth-century Romanticism. His music is grandiose, passionate, melodious, and virtuosic. The Second Piano Concerto is his most popular work, and the Third (made famous in the film Shine) is said to be the most difficult piano concerto ever written. Vladimir Ashkenazy, one of the world's greatest Rachmaninoff performers, has no trouble with the two concertos in these legendary recordings.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Antonín Dvorák: Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104
Mstislav Rostropovich, cello; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan, conductor

When the celebrated Czech composer Antonín Dvorák -- who had spent his entire life in Austria and his native Bohemia -- was invited to New York in 1891, little did he suspect that his few years in America would produce the three works by which he is best known to posterity: The "New World" symphony, the "American" string quartet, and this cello concerto, considered to be the greatest ever written. Dvorák wrote his concerto after hearing the New York Philharmonic play a cello concerto and realizing the expressive potential of solo cello combined with orchestra. The first movement is symphonic in scale and contains several memorable themes. The middle movement is lyrical and nostalgic, evoking the composer's homesickness for his native land, while the finale is a serious march that concludes with a rousing fanfare. Mstislav Rostropovich's 1968 recording has been the definitive version of this concerto ever since it was released.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
Johannes Brahms: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77
Jascha Heifetz, violin; Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner, conductor

Brahms composed his Violin Concerto in 1878 for his friend Joseph Joachim, who was the greatest violinist of his day. Having just completed his second symphony, Brahms conceived the concerto in grand symphonic proportions; the opening movement alone takes about twenty minutes to play. The finale evokes "Hungarian" or "Gypsy" themes, paying homage to Joachim's Concerto in the Hungarian Manner, which the violinist had composed in 1861 and dedicated to Brahms. This 1955 recording featuring Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Reiner has lost none of its appeal with age.

Similar works: Top 10 Brahms, Top 10 Romantic
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23
Van Cliburn, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Kiril Kondrashin, conductor

Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto is the incarnation of Romantic excess: a blockbuster orchestral work dripping with lyricism and requiring extreme virtuosity of both the orchestra and the soloist. The concerto features a majestic first movement, an intensely passionate second movement, and a fiery finale. This famous recording features the lanky Texan Van Cliburn, who in 1958 traveled to hostile Moscow at the height of the Cold War and came back an international hero as the Grand Prize winner of the First International Tchaikovsky Competition. Cliburn made this recording at Carnegie Hall in New York just a few months later, and it captures all of the drama and power that blew the socks off the Soviet judges.

Similar works: Top 10 Tchaikovksy, Top 10 Romantic
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Clarinet Concerto in A major, K. 622
Jack Brymer, clarinet; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham, conductor

Mozart wrote this concerto near the end of his life for his friend Anton Stadler, whom he had met in 1781. Stadler was an excellent clarinettist, and Mozart took advantage of both his performer's skill and new technical developments in the clarinet to create a rich, powerful work that to this day remains foremost among all clarinet concertos in the hearts of both musicians and audiences. Jack Brymer's lush tone suits the piece perfectly, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra provide just the right level of excitement.

Similar works: Top 10 Mozart, Top 10 Classical
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73, "Emperor"
Stephen Kovacevich, piano; London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, conductor

Beethoven's fifth and last piano concerto was given the nickname "Emperor" not by the composer but by early listeners who deemed it worthy of ruling over all other concertos. This is a middle-period work, and throughout the work Beethoven breaks the molds set by his predecessors. We see this trend from the very beginning, when the soloist has long trills and runs in the first few minutes; earlier composers, and even Beethoven himself a few years before, would have introduced the piano only after the orchestra had stated the movement's main themes. This two-for-one set features Stephen Kovacevich in the "Emperor" as well as an all-star cast of soloists in Beethoven's remarkable Triple Concerto.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven, Top 10 Classical
Antonio Vivaldi: Violin Concertos Op. 8, Nos. 1-4, "The Four Seasons"
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Trondheim Soloists

This set of four concertos for violin and orchestra is a fine example of program music -- music designed to conjure specific images or tell a particular story. Each concerto is accompanied by a sonnet describing events of the given season, and Vivaldi's music presents musical depictions of the same events. The "Four Seasons" have been recorded and performed so often that they are in danger of being clichéd, but Anne-Sophie Mutter lays that danger to rest with her exciting performance.

Similar works: Top 10 Baroque
Igor Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D major
Hilary Hahn, violin; Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Sir Neville Marriner, conductor

Stravinsky composed this concerto in 1931 to be played by his violinist friend Samuel Dushkin. Each of the four movements begins with the same three-note chord for the violin, and when he first saw the score Dushkin told Stravinsky that this chord couldn't be played. Stravinsky asked Dushkin to reconsider, the violinist learned new fingerings, and the concerto became a smashing success. While it is in Stravinsky's "Neoclassical" style, its structure is inspired by the Baroque concerto grosso; the movements are entitled Tocatta, Arias I and II, and Capriccio. Hilary Hahn, one of today's best young violinists, gives an inspired performance of this notoriously difficult piece.

Similar works: Top 10 Concertos
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64
Anne-Sophie Mutter, violin; Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan, conductor

Mendelssohn wrote his famous violin concerto in 1838 for his violinist friend Ferdinand David, who, like Mendelssohn, had been a child prodigy. A few months after its premiere, a 14-year-old named Joseph Joachim was asked to play the concerto on extremely short notice, and he performed masterfully, launching a career that would place him as the undisputed king of nineteenth-century violinists. The concerto has remained a favorite of violinsts and audiences ever since, and it is easy to see why: Mendelssohn, like Mozart, had a gift for melody, and the concerto's themes are moving and memorable. The slow movement is as difficult as the fast ones, as the violin plays its own accompaniment, while the finale features upbeat melodies at such blazing speeds it's hard to believe only one instrument is playing them. Anne-Sophie Mutter's youthful recording simply dazzles.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
Edvard Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16
Murray Perahia, piano; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis, conductor

At age 25, the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg was eager to make an impact on the musical world, so he decided to write a piano concerto modeled after that of his idol, Robert Schumann. The concerto grabs the listener's attention right from the start, as it begins with a massive crescendo and then demonstrates the piano's entire seven-octave range. The middle movement takes after Beethoven more than Schumann, while the finale showcases the pianist's virtuosity on a grand scale. This mid-priced CD contains memorable performances of both the Grieg and the Schumann concertos.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic