Romantic piano music: where to start

9 November 2012, 11:29 | Updated: 6 January 2017, 14:45

The Romantic era threw up some of the most incredibly complex, fiddly and beautiful piano music, written by a bunch of emotionally tortured show-offs. But which virtuosos, composers and pieces are the best to start with?

It's fair to say that the piano really came of age in the Romantic period. Around the beginning of the 19th century, the likes of Beethoven had shown just how emotive it could be as instrument with his various sonatas, but it took something else to really transform the instrument - it took a virtuoso.

By the time the middle 1800s rolled around, there was a new piano genius in town - Frédéric Chopin. He didn't live to see his 40th birthday, but he left behind him an incredible legacy and a whole repertoire of piano music that redefined exactly how you could play the instrument. Just listen to his so-called Minute Waltz (which actually takes around a minute and a half to play) to hear how the speed changes in that incredibly romantic style and how darn fast you have to move your fingers to play it:

Chopin was great friends with another virtuoso pianist that went on to perform even more incredible pianistic gymnastics - Franz Liszt. In terms of technical ability, Liszt was considered by many to be the very best of the time, and reports of his concerts describe how his face would contort with emotion as he played - very much in keeping with the development of the Romantic period. Listen to how his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 turns from bleakness to carnivalesque abandon in mere minutes, and just watch those fingers!

The cult of the virtuoso was, by this point, a full part of the Romantic period, and many of the talented few lived like rockstars, touring Europe and setting hearts aflutter as they did. Besides all that, the piano music they wrote was becoming quite unlike anything the world had ever heard.

Sergei Rachmaninov was perhaps the most notable virtuoso that the piano has ever known. Tall, stately and with gargantuan hands (he apparently had an 11-inch hand span), Rachmaninov's piano compositions not only challenged the most seasoned of players, they were also imbued with incredible romanticism.

Chief among those romantic compositions has to be Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2. The second movement in particular has been a public favourite for well over 100 years, has featured in movies and is the absolute paradigm for romantic piano music. If you've not tried it before, make sure you're sitting down: