The numbers have been crunched and the results are in: based on how many times they’ve been programmed between 2010 and 2016, we’ve worked out what the most popular piano concertos are in the world. Here, we introduce you to the top 10. If you’ve got a passion for piano, we’ll be enjoying one of the entries in this week’s At Home Concert Club event on 11th October.

Beethoven and Brahms © Wikimedia Commons
Beethoven and Brahms
© Wikimedia Commons

10. Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major / Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major

Both scrabbling to get into the list, the tenth most popular piano concerto is a draw between Brahms’ Second and Beethoven’s First – spanning two ends of the Romantic scale.

First written in 1795 and revised in 1800, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 was actually his third attempt at the form. Indeed, though his Second Piano Concerto was published later in 1801, he’d actually completed it 10 years before, technically making that one the real First. While in his later piano concertos Beethoven worked the soloist and orchestra against each other in fiery interplay, in the First there is much greater separation between the two. With delicate, fleet-fingered piano writing, this is a more conservative attempt at the form, though that doesn’t sap any of the fun from the sprightly, mischievous third movement. Watch Leif Ove Andsnes perform the work with the Bergen Philharmonic.

Completed in 1881, Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto was the result of a long period of artistic self-reflection. His First Piano Concerto, which he performed himself at the première 22 years earlier, had been dashed to pieces by the critics, who lambasted both his playing and what they saw as his simplistic writing. Brahms clearly wanted to give his detractors no quarter with his second attempt: clocking in at around 50 minutes, this four-movement work is the longest piano concerto of the Romantic era. The writing here is much more technical and agile, the scope broader, with a pastoral opening movement contrasting with the terse and tumultuous second, before the famous finale delivers a sucker-punch of lively, Gypsy music-influenced rhythms. See Ronald Brautigam perform the piece with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic.

9. Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor

© Elliot and Fry | Wikimedia Commons
© Elliot and Fry | Wikimedia Commons

Written when he was just 24, Grieg’s only piano concerto was also his first orchestral work. Though it was cordially received at its première in Denmark, audiences at home were much more scathing. Grieg, who was also devastated by the recent death of his baby daughter, travelled to Rome, his confidence utterly broken. But a fortunate meeting with Franz Liszt would change the fate of the concerto: playing the whole piano part through, the Hungarian composer enjoined the young man to have faith in what he’d created, saying: “Stay your course… You have the ability needed – let nothing frighten you!” Listening to the work now, one could hardly guess at any crisis of confidence on the composer’s part: from the dramatic descending chords that open the work to the sensitive, heartfelt melodies in the second movement, it contains all the hallmarks of Grieg’s future greatness. Watch Ben Grosvenor perform the work with the Bergen Philharmonic.

8. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor

Composed in 1909, almost a decade after his Second Piano Concerto, Rachmaninov’s Third is viewed as something of a mountain to climb by many concert pianists, and some believe that the difficulty level derives from the composer’s improbably large handspan. Indeed, the fact that the pianist whom it was dedicated, Josef Hofmann, never performed the piece, may well be telling of the technical demands of the piece. This work is much more sprawling and histrionic than his earlier attempts at the genre, and a particularly exciting moment is that in which a low, tension-filled build in the final movement bubbles up into a frenetic coda. You know what they say about people with big hands. Watch Anna Fedorova perform the work with the North West German Philharmonic

7. Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor

Brahms cut his teeth as a composer writing for solo piano, but his first attempt at a concerto began life as a two-piano sonata. Worked on over an agonising five-year period, it was the composer’s first orchestral work to be aired to the public when it premiered in early 1859. The tender second movement was Brahms’ tribute to his friend Clara Schumann, to whom he wrote of the section: “I am painting a gentle portrait of you.” The concerto is seen by some as a move toward greater integration between the soloist and orchestral parts, with the orchestra in earlier Romantic concertos having more of an accompanying role.

6. Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in C minor

© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons
© Public domain | Wikimedia Commons

 Rachmaninov fell into a pit of depression after the disastrously-received première of his First Symphony, and only a course of hypnotherapy enabled him to overcome his doubts and go back to the drawing board. Composed in 1900, the Second Piano Concerto sees Rachmaninov cover a range of moods and textures, from the dark drama of the opening chords and their evocation of clanging church bells to the final movement, in which sweeping, romantic string lines are contrasted with the piano’s spiky chords leading up to a hectic finale. Watch Anna Fedorova perform the work with the North West German Philharmonic.

5. Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor

Robert Schumann had a few false starts at piano concertos, with failed attempts at the form in 1828, 1831 and 1839. Before they married, Schumann wrote to his future wife Clara that he had in mind a piano work that would be “a compromise between a symphony, a concerto and a huge sonata”. Yet it wasn’t until he began composing a fantasy for piano in 1841 that the true seed for his only complete piano concerto was sown. Premiering in 1846 with Clara as the soloist, contemporary audiences were confused by the work’s understated nature and lack of keyboard pyrotechnics (Liszt even called it a “concerto without piano”). Yet the piece is by no means without its thrills – particularly in the frequent modulations in mood and ambiguous rhythms in the final movement. Watch Nelson Freire perform the work with the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic.   

4. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor

Having started work on it in 1874, Tchaikovsky revised his First Piano Concerto three times before hitting on the 1888 version we commonly hear today. With the brazen opening chords and broad emotive brushstrokes of the opening section, it was considered too brashly simplistic for the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, who declared it “bad, trivial and vulgar”. It’s true that Tchaikovsky doesn’t go in for subtlety with this piece, and perhaps its heart-on-sleeve nature is why it’s so well-loved today. The sweetly serene second movement and its accompanying flurries of piano, coupled with the triumphant climax of the finale (in which the soloist is required to play a challenging double-octave passage) adds up to a rapturous display of Romantic ambition.  

3. Beethoven’s Piano concerto no. 4 in G major

From here on in, Beethoven dominates. Premiered in 1808, the Fourth piano breaks with tradition in a number of ways. Firstly, no other piano concerto up to that point had begun with the soloist playing quietly and unaccompanied. Also, while previously the concerto had been theorised as a form based on cooperation, here the soloist and orchestra have a much more antagonistic relationship, with each side battling for thematic ground. The inconsolable-sounding slow movement is unusually short too – often lasting only five minutes – and the whole orchestra isn’t employed until the final movement. Clearly, Beethoven was starting to test the limits of what a piano concerto could be.

2. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major

Behold, the “Emperor”. Some say one of Napoleon’s officers in the army occupying Vienna at the time of the work’s première coined the regal epithet for Beethoven’s final piano concerto; others hold that it was the early publisher Johann Baptist Cramer. Whatever the case, we know that it was composed from 1809 to 1811 – still early days for musical Romanticism – and so the Fifth Piano Concerto still holds a certain Classical poise. Taking the Fourth’s idea of opening with solo piano work, Beethoven goes even further in the first movement here, with virtuosic solo runs punctuated by grand chords in the orchestra. A much more staid second movement follows, and by the time of the boisterous Rondo we’re caught up in Beethoven’s ambitious compositional world.

1. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor

What has made the Third Piano Concerto the most popular composition in the genre in recent years? Perhaps it’s the way Beethoven flits between emotional registers, from the dark and worrisome first movement to the tender lyricism of the second and the unassailable optimism of the C major coda. Or perhaps it’s because the Third is the first piano concerto in which the composer responded to changes in the range of the piano – previously he didn’t want to limit his compositions to being played only on the newest instruments, but here he embraced the new, including a high G and then adding high C when he revised the piece in 1804. Its Mozartian echoes, unusually long orchestral opening and irrepressible forward propulsion all add up to a concerto brimming with surprise.

If you’re interested in learning more about Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, Anna Fedorova will be answering questions in a live Twitter Q & A on 11th October from 20:20 UK time. Use #concertclub5 to send your questions.