The Piano: a playlist by Susan Tomes

In celebration of the upcoming publication of The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces, we asked author and concert pianist, Susan Tomes, to curate a playlist inspired by the musical journey she evokes throughout her book. Featuring pieces from the late eighteenth century to the present day, this playlist is perfect for listening to whilst reading Tomes’ fascinating exploration of the piano’s history.

Listen to the playlist here:

Read on to gain an insight into the thought behind each of Susan’s selections.

Pre-History: From Harpsichord to Piano

Scarlatti: Sonata in E major K380, and Sonata in G major K55, played by Vladimir Horowitz in Carnegie Hall in 1968

Horowitz’s refined, beautiful playing of Scarlatti sonatas on the modern piano gave them a new lease of life.

JS Bach: Italian Concerto, played by Andras Schiff  at the Leipzig Bach Festival in 2010

Renowned for his Bach playing, Schiff brings his characteristic rhythmic bite and control of structure to one of Bach’s most extrovert keyboard pieces.

From Haydn to Schubert: Music for the Developing ‘Fortepiano’

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Sonata in B flat major K454 for piano and violin, played on instruments of the period by Luc Devos (fortepiano) and Sigiswald Kuijken (violin)

There’s a sense of unforced and intimate dialogue between fortepiano and violin in this period performance, giving us an idea of the type of instrumental balance Mozart might have been familiar with.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata in F minor, ‘Appassionata’, opus 57, played by Murray Perahia at a concert in Japan in 2014

One of Beethoven’s most dramatic sonatas, played by a pianist who understands how to bring poetry as well as momentum to the ideas that flash by on this huge musical canvas.

Franz Schubert: Rondo in A major D951 for piano duet, played by Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim

Two great pianists, best known as soloists, share the keyboard for a touchingly gentle encore at the end of an orchestral concert.

From the Mendelssohns to Dvorak: the Growing Power of the Nineteenth-Century Piano

Fanny Mendelssohn: ‘May’ from Das Jahr, played by Sarah Rothenberg

Fanny Mendelssohn’s gift for melody and command of the keyboard is given sensitive interpretation by pianist Sarah Rothenberg.

Frederic Chopin: Ballade no 1 in G minor, opus 23, played by Seong-Jin Cho

One of the finest single-movement Romantic piano pieces, played by South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the 2015 International Chopin Competition.

Franz Liszt: Sonata in B minor, S.178, played by Yuja Wang

Astonishing technique and flair from this young virtuoso performing a warhorse of the repertoire.

From Grieg to Ravel: Into the Twentieth Century

Leos Janacek: On an Overgrown Path, book 1, played by Rudolf Firkusny

A compatriot of Janacek’s brings a quiet nobility to these intimate portraits of childhood scenes and rural life.

Claude Debussy: Images, Series 1, played by Daniil Trifonov

Three pieces of ravishing colour and texture beautifully brought to life by a young Russian master of the piano keyboard.

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto no 3, played by the composer with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy in 1940

Rachmaninoff was a magnificent advocate for his own piano pieces, and here his inimitable playing shows his ability to bend the timing to subtle expressive effect.

From Ives to Gubaidulina: ‘Stand Up and Take your Dissonance like a Man!’ 

Bela Bartok: Contrasts, for violin, clarinet and piano, played by Joseph Szigeti, Benny Goodman and Bela Bartok in 1940

Benny Goodman, the jazz clarinettist who commissioned the piece in the hope of appealing to both jazz and classical fans, made it famous in this recording with the composer at the piano.

Olivier Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jésu, played by Messiaen’s wife Yvonne Loriod in 1970

An epic performance of richly spiritual music by a pianist who devoted much of her long career to interpreting her husband’s work.

Gyorgy Ligeti: Musica Ricercata no 7, played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard

A mesmerising piece in a hypnotic performance by a master of contemporary piano repertoire.

The Jazz Influence

Billy Mayerl: The Jazz Master, played by the composer in the 1920s

Billy Mayerl dispatches his entertaining virtuoso piano music with panache.

Art Tatum: Dvorak’s Humoresque no 7, used as the basis of a jazz improvisation by Art Tatum

Admired for his amazing technique by the most famous pianists of the day, jazz pianist Art Tatum here uses a classical piece as the springboard for some delightful keyboard pirouettes.

Bill Evans: Waltz for Debby, played by Bill Evans and his trio

Subtle and serious yet swinging, Bill Evans’ delicate tracery in sound remains unsurpassed in jazz.

Hazel Scott: Black and White are Beautiful, played on two pianos by Hazel Scott in 1943

A sensation in her day, Hazel Scott here shows the flair, keyboard virtuosity and rapport with the camera which made her a star.

Today’s Piano Styles: Minimalism and Historical Awareness

Philip Glass: Mad Rush, played by the composer at a concert in Montreal in 2015

A fascinating glimpse of a master of minimalist music performing this influential piece at the end of an orchestral concert.

Thomas Adès: Three Mazurkas, played by Kirill Gerstein at a concert in the Gilmore Keyboard Festival, Michigan, 2018

Inspired by Chopin’s Mazurkas, these contemporary tributes seem to propel the mazurka into new realms of the imagination.

Susan Tomes is a concert pianist and writer. Renowned both as a soloist and as the pianist of Domus and the Florestan Trio, she is the author of numerous works including Beyond the NotesSleeping in Temples and Speaking the Piano.

In her latest book, The Piano: A History in 100 Pieces, Susan Tomes takes the reader with her on a personal journey through 100 pieces including solo works, chamber music, concertos, and jazz. Her choices include composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Robert Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Gershwin, and Philip Glass. Looking at this history from a modern performer’s perspective, she acknowledges neglected women composers and players including Fanny Mendelssohn, Maria Szymanowska, Clara Schumann, and Amy Beach.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy The Classical Music Lover’s Playlist by Robert Philip.

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