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Top 10 Piano Works to Start Your Classical Music CD and MP3 Collection

The body of piano music that we know today reflects the development of keyboard instruments over the last four hundred years. In the Baroque era, the harpsichord was the principal keyboard instrument. The harpsichord works by plucking strings inside the instrument, which makes possible very fast runs. However, all notes on the harpsichord must always be played at the same volume, which limits the expressive possibilities of the instrument. Today much Baroque keyboard music is played on the piano, which, though not what the composer intended, can make for as sublime an experience as any.

In the mid-eighteenth century a new instrument came into style that played by striking wooden hammers against strings, rather than plucking them. It was called a fortepiano, since it could play both loud (forte) and soft (piano). At some point the name got switched around to pianoforte, or just piano for short. The late-eighteenth-century piano was light in tone and very responsive to the player; it was for this instrument that Beethoven wrote his 32 sonatas, which are now the cornerstone of the piano literature.

In the nineteenth century the piano acquired more keys and was strengthened by metal plates and braces, becoming shaped into the instrument we know today. The modern piano produces a full, firm tone at any dynamic level, and nineteenth-century composers took advantage of this new resource to write piano works that called for great virtuosity and expressiveness. Since 1800, all of the great composers have written for piano, and today there is piano music to suit anyone's mood or taste.

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1 Beethoven: "Pathétique" and "Moonlight" Piano Sonatas -- Alfred Brendel
Beethoven's more intimate medium of expression. Review...

2 Chopin: Piano Works -- Vladimir Ashkenazy
Sparkling piano miniatures with a Polish touch. Review...

3 Schubert: Impromptus -- Murray Perahia
Exquisite piano miniatures. Review...

4 Bach: Goldberg Variations -- Glenn Gould
From a simple song to complex counterpoint. Review...

5 Debussy: Préludes -- Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Painting pictures with the piano. Review...

6 Brahms: Piano Works -- Radu Lupu
A sampling of Brahms's best. Review...

7 Beethoven: Late Piano Sonatas -- Maurizio Pollini
Complex works that set a new standard. Review...

8 Liszt: Piano Sonata -- Jorge Bolet
A masterful sonata by the greatest pianist ever. Review...

9 Mozart: Piano Sonatas -- Mitsuko Uchida
An encyclopedia of the Classical sonata. Review...

10 Scriabin: Piano Works -- Vladimir Horowitz
Masterful miniatures from a Romantic Russian. Review...

11 Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier -- Rosalyn Tureck
A cornucopia of counterpoint. Review...

12 Haydn: Piano Sonatas -- András Schiff
Neglected works comparable to Mozart's best. Review...


Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas No. 8, "Pathétique"; No. 14 "Moonlight"
Alfred Brendel, piano

While Beethoven's symphonies show outward storm and fire, the piano sonatas give us a more personal view of the composer. Beethoven composed his two most famous sonatas early in his career, when he was just making a name for himself in Vinna. The first movement of the "Moonlight" and the middle one of the "Pathétique" are so tender as to move the listener to tears. But the storm is not altogether missing; the "Pathétique" opening movement and the "Moonlight" finale contain some of Beethoven's most exciting music. Alfred Brendel gives a gripping performance on this two-disc set containing five other wonderful sonatas.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven, Top 10 Classical
Frederic Chopin: Piano Works
Vladimir Ashkenazy, piano

Though Frederic Chopin spent most of his career in Paris, he never stopped loving his native Poland, and his music reflects this love. In addition to writing polonaises, or Polish dances, he infused much of his best music with Polish rhythm and harmony. Chopin specialized in the short piano piece, writing numerous études, scherzos, ballades, preludes, nocturnes, waltzes, and mazurkas as well as polonaises. This two-for-one CD features a sampling of Chopin's best works, including the "Raindrop" prelude, the "Military" polonaise, and the Fantasie-Impromptu.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
Franz Schubert: Impromptus, Op. 90, Op. 142
Murray Perahia, piano

Schubert's Impromptus are among the greatest short piano pieces ever written. Each explores a different mood, from the march-like first impropmptu to the subdued and lyrical third to the jaunty final piece, and together they form an encyclopedia of nineteenth-century piano style. Murray Perahia gives the definitive performance of these eight pieces, combining both Classical clarity and Romantic passion.

Similar works: Top 10 Schubert, Top 10 Romantic
Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Glenn Gould, piano

Legend has it that Bach wrote this set of variations for his student Goldberg to play for an insomniac Count. Scholarly research has shown that the legend is probably not true, and listening to the piece will affirm that conculsion -- it would be nearly impossible to fall asleep to it. Bach takes a simple aria and constructs a set of thirty variations on this theme, employing all of the keyboard styles of his time and ranging widely in mood before coming back to a restatement of the theme at the end. Glenn Gould, perhaps the most famous of all Bach interpreters, recorded the Goldbergs twice. The first recording, from 1955, is a virtuosic performance that revolutionized Bach keyboard playing, while the second, from 1981, is a far more introspective interpretation by an artist nearing the end of his life. This three-disc collection offers both recordings of the Goldbergs as well as a revealing inteview in which Gould discusses his performances, all for the cost of one full-priced CD.

Similar works: Top 10 Bach, Top 10 Baroque
Claude Debussy: Préludes, Books I & II
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano

Claude Debussy was the premier composer in the style that has come to be called "Impressionism." Unlike earlier composers, Debussy did not seek to express a deep emotion or tell a story, but rather to evoke a mood or an atmosphere. He does this admirably in his two books of preludes for piano. Each is a short work with a brief descriptive title which is perfectly illustrated by the music. It is a wonder that the same instrument that can play Beethoven's most fiery sonata can also play this ethereal music. Jean-Yves Thibaudet gives a splendid performance of the preludes as well as several other popular Debussy piano works.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Johannes Brahms: Piano Works, Op. 79, 117-119
Radu Lupu, piano

Brahms's primary contribution to the piano literature is the short works that he composed throughout his life. The pieces are typically Romantic, exploring a single mood or emotion. This collection features the two great Rhapsodies, Op. 79, as well as three collections of works Brahms wrote just before his death. The pieces are fiendishly difficult, requiring a wide range of technique; one of Brahms's trademarks was to ask the player to play groups of three notes in one hand and groups of four in the other. Radu Lupu seems to have no trouble with these pieces, making them flow effortlessly from his fingertips.

Similar works: Top 10 Brahms, Top 10 Romantic
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Nos. 28-32
Maurizio Pollini, piano

Beethoven's final piano sonatas test the expressive limits of the piano and the pianist. As with his late string quartets, these are highly charged personal works, containing violent outbursts and moments of exquisite tenderness, and the influence of Bach is again visible. Maurizio Pollini's performance is truly remarkable.

Similar works: Top 10 Beethoven, Top 10 Classical
Franz Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor
Jorge Bolet, piano

Franz Liszt was probably the greatest pianist the world has ever known. Born in Hungary, Liszt began dazzling audiences with his virtuosity at age eleven. He spent most of his first forty years in Paris, where he was at the center of the city's musical life. He arranged for piano Beethoven's symphonies, Schubert's songs, and Wagner's operas, which, in an age before recordings, brought this great music into ordinary people's living rooms. As a composer he invented the genre of the tone poem and created ferociously difficult piano pieces with which he (and generations of later pianists) could dazzle audiences. The B minor sonata is his greatest large-scale piano work. It consists of one extended movement in which themes are transformed and combined seemingly at whim. This two-for-one set contains the Sonata as well as fifteen other Liszt favorites.

Similar works: Top 10 Romantic
Wolfgamg Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-18
Mitsuko Uchida, piano

Mozart's piano sonatas chronicle his development as a composer and pianist from a precocious teenager in Salzburg to a celebrated master in Vienna. While none of these sonatas have the fiery storm of Beethoven's works in the genre, each is charming and delightful in its own way. Particularly notable are the Sonata No. 11, with its famous "Rondo alla turca" finale, and the Sonata No. 18, whose opening motif resembles a hunter's horn-call. Mitsuko Uchida gives the definitive interpretation of all the sonatas, exhibiting an elegant and very Mozartean touch. If you don't want to shell out $50-plus for all five CDs, Maria João Pires gives fine performances that are available individually; we recommend starting with CD that includes the last four sonatas and the D minor Fantasia.

Similar works: Top 10 Mozart, Top 10 Classical
Alexander Scriabin: Piano Works
Vladimir Horowitz, piano

Alexander Scriabin was a mystic who sought to unite music, poetry, drama, and dance unto a new art form he called the "Mystery." Though he did not succeed at creating this fusion, he did continue the Romantic piano tradition in the manner of Chopin, writing preludes, nocturnes, études, and mazurkas as well as full sonatas. His harmonic idiom, on the other hand, points toward twentieth-century developments, and his late works are nearly atonal. This collection features some of Scriabin's most popular works, played by one of the best Scriabin interpreters ever, Vladimir Horowitz.

Similar works: Top 10 Early Modern
Johann Sebastian Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I & II, BWV 846-893
Rosalyn Tureck, piano

The Well-Tempered Clavier sums up Bach's mastery of the keyboard in the same way as the B minor Mass sums up his mastery of singing. Each book contains twenty-four preludes and fugues, one in each major and minor key. In the early eighteenth century keyboard instruments would be tuned so that certain keys sounded better or worse than others; the innovation of "well-tempered" tuning allowed the keyboard to sound equally well in all keys, which these collections are intended to demonstrate. They also serve as manuals for keyboard technique, both in the preludes, which usually offer a specific technical challenge, and in the fugues, which test the players ability to untangle dense contrapuntal lines. Rosalyn Tureck, one of the great Bach performers, handily achieves these tasks and provides a compelling performance. Though he does not have the intensity or attention to detail of Turek, Jeno Jando provides adequate performances (Book I, Book II) at half the price.

Similar works: Top 10 Bach, Top 10 Baroque
Franz Joseph Haydn: Piano Sonatas Nos. 32-33, 53-54, 58-62
András Schiff, piano

Haydn's piano sonatas are unjustly neglected in the Classical repertory. This collection of performances by András Schiff makes a forceful argument for their elevation to equal status with Mozart's sonatas. The sonatas are elegantly crafted and completely idiomatic to the piano, and they exhibit a wide range of moods, from the storminess of No. 33 in C minor, to the relaxed, improvisatory attitude of No. 58 in C major, to the grandeur of No. 62 in E-flat major.

Similar works: Top 10 Haydn, Top 10 Classical