The 14 best pieces EVER written for piano

12 July 2017, 11:31

Best piano works

The piano is such a versatile instrument, that naturally everyone wants to write for it. But today we’re getting down to the exceptional stuff: this is a list of the best pieces ever written for piano (no questions asked).

Beethoven – 'Moonlight' Sonata

The heart-stoppingly beautiful movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata is the most famous of this work, but it couldn’t be more different from the third movement, an epic technical work-out for the fingers.

Debussy – Clair de Lune

‘Clair de Lune’ also means ‘Moonlight’ – but there’s a stark contrast between Beethoven’s style and Debussy’s Impressionism. But don’t be fooled by its initial simplicity: the third movement from Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque took the French impressionist 15 years to write. The result is a work that sounds simple but demands the very best from its performers. But get it right and it allows the most accomplished pianists to shine.

Chopin – Nocturne in E-flat Major (Op.9, No.2)

Chopin composed his most well-known nocturne at the tender age of 20, which perhaps accounts for its youthful passion. The build-up from the main theme and waltz-like accompaniment to the dramatic trill-filled finale, makes the Nocturne in E-flat Major one of the greatest piano works ever written.

Schumann – Scenes from Childhood

Schumann’s Kinderszenen are a bittersweet collection of piano miniatures covering themes like games of chase, night-time terrors, bedtime stories and falling asleep. The most famous, ‘Traumerei’ paints a musical picture of peaceful childhood dreams and has become one of the composer’s best-known works.

Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier

Bach wrote the first of the two books that make up The Well-Tempered Clavier in 1722, making this one of the earliest pieces on our list. Each of the two books contain 24 Preludes and Fugues (the whole work is sometimes known as ‘The 48’), in each key in the Western scale: each books opens with a Prelude in C major and closes with a fugue in B minor. It is now regarded as one of the most important works ever written for the piano.

Bach – Goldberg Variations

These 30 variations on the same theme were originally written to help a Russian count overcome his insomnia. They’re named after a keyboard player called Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who may have been the musician who played the music to help the count get to sleep. The work opens with a simple statement of the theme (the ‘aria’) and the 30 variations get more and more intricate, demanding and stray further and further from the original theme. The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould recorded what has become the most famous version of the monumental work.

Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.5 'Emperor'

The last of Beethoven’s great piano concertos, the ‘Emperor’ has a strong claim to be the greatest piece for piano ever written. The nickname wasn’t given to the piece by the composer himself but apparently by one of Napoleon’s officers who declared it was ‘an emperor of a concerto’. After the colossal first movement, the second movement flows directly into the finale, bringing a close to one of the true warhorses of the piano repertoire. Every pianist worth their salt has recorded the work – but Leif Ove Andsnes’s is a great recording.

Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue

Gershwin’s work for piano and jazz band melded classical and jazz styles but wasn't entirely positively received by 1920s critics. Today it's one of the best known works for piano and it grounded Gershwin's reputation as a serious composer. The piece’s jazz influences are what gives it its sultry and indulgent character.

Liszt – Piano sonata in B minor 

In 1854, Liszt had put the finishing touches to this piece, his monumental Piano Sonata in B minor, and took the music to perform at a private soirée. Among the guests was another composer, Johannes Brahms. Liszt took his seat at the piano and began to play. When he reached a section of the piece of which he was particularly proud, so the story goes, he glanced over at Brahms to see what he thought… only to find his fellow composer snoozing. 

Despite that unfortunate first performance, this sonata has become one of the most famous, best loved and most frequently performed piano works ever written. Traditionally, sonatas have four movements. But Liszt was never one to play by the rules, so this sonata is one unbroken stretch of music lasting for around 30 minutes. The piece is built around a handful of motifs, or themes, which re-appear in various guises throughout.

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.20

The first time this was performed, Mozart took the reins and played the piano himself. Because really, who could possibly play it better than young Wolfgang himself? The concerto’s final movement is legendary for its shift from a dark and restless mood, to a jubilant D Major finale. Also, fun fact: the young Beethoven adored this concerto, and kept it in his piano repertoire.

Beethoven – Sonata Pathétique

If you’re feeling sombre and brooding, the Sonata Pathétique is the perfect accompaniment. Timeless and joyously recognisable for the unique motif line Beethoven uses throughout. It’s no surprise this sonata remains one of the composer’s most celebrated compositions.

Liszt – La Campanella

Literally meaning ‘little bell’ in Italian, La Campanella borrows its melody from the final movement of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No.2, in which the tune is accompanied with a handbell. This is the third of Liszt’s six Grandes Etudes de Paganini and it has an ethereal beauty in its tinkling, bell-like notes.

Mozart – Piano Sonata No.11 (including 'Rondo alla Turca')

The sonata’s third movement Rondo alla Turca is so popular, it is often played as its own musical entity. Mozart’s Rondo imitates the sound of Turkish military bands, which was in vogue with European composers at the time. 

Rachmaninov – Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor

Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto has our Classic FM Hall of Fame top spot eight times since the chart began in 1996… but what makes this unassailably epic work of genius so special? Is it the first movement’s contrast between solo piano and storming orchestral themes? Is it the emotionally syrupy second movement, which gave Brief Encounter its unforgettable soundtrack? Or is it the third movement’s epic virtuosic finale, under which the finest of pianists can crack? All of the above.