What's the Most Virtuosic Piano Piece Ever Written?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

As we mark the bicentenary of Franz Liszt in 2011, many pianists are daring to tackle his immensely difficult and diabolical compositions. But they're not the only "extreme" pieces in the repertoire.

Rachmaninoff could give Liszt a run for his money in his epic concertos; Balakirev's Islamey was a favorite of Horowitz and even caused Scriabin to damage his right hand while fanatically practicing the piece; Ravel wanted the Scarbo movement from his Gaspard de la Nuit to be more difficult than Islamey. What do you think? Take our poll:

A postscript: We'll be highlighting the results of this poll next week on WQXR. Stay tuned for more details!

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Comments [51]

J A S from Dublin

I don't play everything on the list, but I do play Gaspard de la Nuit and Islamey. I think Islamey is much more difficult. It seems to be acceptable to play this piece very badly, and with all sorts of pauses and rubato to cover over the cracks. I don't find Gaspard de la Nuit nearly as tough, as each technical challenge just requires a certain knack to get the right type of sound at a suitable tempo. The Rachmaninoff is on the list , but Prokofiev 2 is not?

Jul. 05 2016 01:26 AM

1stly. "Liszts Transcendental etudes" are not as hard as his douze grandes etudes, ravels gaspard de la nuit is only hard when you play all 3 movements, but the 2nd is easy to play, even for intimidates, have any of you though about alkan or even mereaux? I bet you haven't, theirs many composers that may have made harder pieces than say islamey, rachmaninoffs piano concerto no. 3 is piano with orchestral, and I believe that the topic was "the most virtuosic piano piece ever written" although Im going to get criticised about it meaning any piece on piano, liszts hardest etude is defenitly feux follets I have given it a try myself and had a try of mazeppa S138, their are many pieces out their that we may not have discovered or have yet to be preformed because their to hard to play, even harder than say islamey and finally you can't judge that the piece is the most difficult to play in the world because you heard it or someone said so, you need to have a play of it to decide for your self.

Jan. 06 2015 04:31 PM
peter swallow from Canterbury UK

I have played all the above pieces, Schumann's toccata is not the most difficult but you do need to stretch an 11th at some speed. Rachmaninov is playable but you need to possess power and considerable technical facility. Godowsky wrote two further pieces based upon a symphonic metamorphosis of ideas from JOhann Strauss and are just as tricky as well as his studies after chopin. Worth learning! His sonata is well worth learning for the same reason.

Please look at the studies of Kalkbrenner are just as difficult to play but they are quite short and may have influenced Chopin's sets of Etudes Op 10 and Op 25 and Alkan's Op 39 sets of studies.

Alkan composed sets of studies Op 39 (as well as his Op 76) will challenge as well as Busoni's Piano Concerto Op 39,- your technical prowess as well as your endurance ability to perform quite challenging keyboard writing. Sorabji did write transcendental studies as well as concertos for the piano. His opus clavicembalisticum is generally regarded as the longest non-repeatable collection of pieces ever written usually in a quasi contrapuntal style. Leo Ornstein has written highly challenging sonatas as well as his 'Wild Man' study which was equally wildly jeared at it's first performance. Incidently I am currently learning the 4th Sonata and is worth learning.
Please don't ignore Sonatas by York Bowen and Benjamin Dale his sonata written when he was a teenager. The main reason why these fantastically difficult sonatas are not incorporated into recital programmes is their long length of play. Blumenthal wrote studies that are very difficult to play.

Xenakis wrote a piece called 'Herma' and is difficult to hear as well as to play. Messiaen wrote a set of studies each with a religious titles callede Jesus l'Regard are getting quite virtuosic as well as his turangalila symphony which contains a formidable piano part which must be regarded as written in the form of a symphonic concertante are very difficult to pull off with alacrity. I know more, so keep tuned for the next thrilling installment!

Mar. 29 2013 07:33 PM
alon ostrun

I think the hardest piano piece for klavier is schumann's toccata!!!!!!
its unbelievable hard ......
the contrast between ff to pp (florestan and eusebius)....
only a true master can do it with music ,character and etc....(horwoitz,pogorelich)

Jan. 31 2012 02:55 PM

Why does Rachmaninoff's Concerto no.3 always appear on these lists?
What about Prokofiev No.2, and Bartok no.2? Liszt's music isn't too hard once your technique reaches a certain level. Works like Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata and Diabelli Variations on the other hand are lifelong challenges that only the finest artists can truly master.

Nov. 19 2011 06:41 AM

after listening to a performance of liszt s
REMINISCENCES OF DON JUAN, a pianist i knew said it was the most fiendishly difficult piece of piano writing she had ever heard.

Jan. 28 2011 01:14 AM
James Gedge from at work (shhhhhhh)

I won't vote. I want you to play them all!!!

Jan. 24 2011 09:59 AM

Prokofiev's second piano concerto.

Jan. 22 2011 05:02 AM
Michael Meltzer

Rosemary's comment is provocative. I'm not sure if the Sunken Cathedral is or is not the best example, but perhaps the most virtuosic piece is the piece with the most consecutive pianistic problems to solve, or the most frequent simultaneous problems.
There are problems other than velocity and force, such as coordination, tone and touch variation, polyphonic voicing, overcoming clumsy writing and others often not apparent to the non-pianist listener.
That throws into question where we really want to go with this discussion, or is the question as posed really the question we want to answer? Aren't we really asking, "What is the flashiest piano piece?," not what is the most virtuosic?

Jan. 21 2011 02:03 AM
Rosemary from Elberon, NJ

My favorite concerto is Rachmaninoff's 2nd but that's not what you asked, is it?
I'd honestly have to say the most virtuoistic (is that a word?) piano piece is anything written by Claude Debussy, especially "The Sunken Cathedral." As a former friend used to say, Debussy was the first and probably the only tonal composer to use so many 32nd notes. I think my friend was right. But Debussy's piano works were so imaginative! I can almost see the Cathedral at Ys rising from the sea and then descending ... down ... down ... down ... until it is no more.

Jan. 20 2011 11:27 PM
Michael Meltzer

Just to make note of an interesting and ferocious knucklebuster from the south, I just heard Argentinian-American pianist Mirian Conti play the Ginastera "Malambo," opus 7.
At least when she plays it, you have to hold on to your chair.

Jan. 20 2011 11:14 PM
Larry Lyons from Rutherford

Gottschalk's piano music aint chopped liver.

Jan. 20 2011 04:25 PM
Steve Wall from NC

Beethoven op 111

no hiding, bared soul, ultimate piece

Jan. 19 2011 11:10 PM
marlin swing from new york

Just add ANY of the many EARL WILD recordings of the ultra-difficult Liszt

Jan. 18 2011 12:28 PM
David F Taylor from Queens, NY

Has anyone heard David Saperton's Recordings of the Chopin-Godowsky Etudes? He was a magnificent pianist and incredible teacher (and Godowsky's son-in-law among other things) who played them for me in his 80's shortly before he died in 1970. Nothing less than astounding AND incredibly musical. (He taught Jorge Bolet, Abbey Simon, Sidney Foster, Shura Cherkassky and others, he must have known something...) These recordings are now available somewhere I have heard and are definitely worth your attention.

Jan. 15 2011 04:33 PM
Michael Meltzer

1 No one has yet mentioned the great Italian knucklebustermeister, Ferruccio Busoni. Try one of his sonatinas for size!
2. The public seems to be completely unaware of the enormous difficulty in playing well the Schubert sonatas, especially the last ones. You hear soaring melodies and mellifluous legato phrases, not knowing that his writing was unusually unpianistic, and for the uninitiated is full of bumps, lurches, ungainly leaps and one clumsy obstacle after another. There are no pyrotechnics or breathtaking velocity to let the listener know that anything difficult was mastered, and many pianists avoid them as "too much work" and "unrewarding."
When you hear what Goode, Uchida, Lupu or Brendel do with them you are hearing
virtuosity in top form, without a virtuosity badge.
A New York pianist who has made this literature a specialty and is a delight to hear, is pianist-musicologist Susan Kagan of the Hunter College Music Department. Look for her recitals.

Jan. 14 2011 04:37 PM
Carrie from NYC

Loosen up, guys! We all know the "ultimate" piece will never be agreed on....it is just fun to hear (read) peoples tastes and concepts. I like yellow, you like red, so there....neither is better or harder to look at!

Jan. 14 2011 01:59 PM

Piano virtuosity involves more than just playing a piece "come scritto." To be truly virtuosic an artist must be able to bring the composition to life for an audience, and to put his or her own indelible artistic stamp on a performance of the work. With these criteria in mind, I suppose John Cage's 4'33" must be the most difficult--and therefore the most virtuosic--piece in the repertoire.

Jan. 14 2011 09:56 AM
alan cagan from freeport

Revolutionary Etude, period.

Jan. 14 2011 09:51 AM
Michael Meltzer

This discussion is wonderful, I hope it goes on forever! The programming department should be taking many notes.
Let me pose a slight change in direction: How many pianists would dare play the Chopin A-major Prelude or MacDowell's "To a Wild Rose" to an audience of 3,000 or on national TV? There is music that is so exposed that the slightest aberration shows up as egregious error, like much of Mozart. If you drop a few notes in a Liszt Transcendental Etude, who cares, and how many will notice? In a way, the Mozart is the more difficult.
Just a footnote: Liszt was asked by a journalist if he ever experienced nervousness on stage. He replied that he had never been nervous playing in public, the only time he was ever nervous at the piano was the occasion on which he played for Alkan.

Jan. 14 2011 02:51 AM
Harvey from Fairfield, CT

All of the comments have merit, but the question itself "the most virtuosic piano piece" is sufficiently vague to allow for various interpretations: technical difficulty, musicality, etc. And it is independent of the performer, it asks about the piece itself.

As composers, Godowsky and Alkan come to mind as generally the most technically difficult. However, my vote about a piece goes to Beethoven's Waldstein sonata. The difficulty is subtle. It is long trills in the right hand with fingers 1 and 2, while the melody is being played an octave higher with ... the same hand. It is not so much one of those dense musical fireworks issues, but real virtuosity that is required to execute this combination of trill and melody cleanly and expressively.

Jan. 14 2011 01:18 AM
Mark from NJ

How about Horowitz' arrangement of 'The Stars & Stripes Forever'? I was always told that it was fiendishly difficult, especially the interior countermelodies towards the end.

Jan. 13 2011 03:34 PM

great nominee but what about liszt sonata in B

but still godowsky is the hardest no doubt about that

Jan. 13 2011 02:43 PM
Michael Meltzer

Allan from Brooklyn:
The absence of Scriabin from this list is no more absurd than the absence of Scriabin from this radio station for the entire past year.

Jan. 13 2011 11:58 AM
Allan from Brooklyn

I agree, that this "contest" is a pointless as the one initiated in the Times, where the critic is trying to select the 10 "best" composers. Good luck. And so what?

Unless you prefer gymnastics to great dance, this sort of thing is probably your cup of tea. Do you want to be moved, touched, or wowed?

Still, the absence of Scriabin on this list is absurd. Listen to the preludes op.11/14, 74/5; etudes op. 42/5, 65/3; or the 2nd movement of the 4th piano sonata, and you'll see what I mean.

I notice "Rach 3" is in the lead in this so-called contest. My guess is that most people know it and know less well, or not at all, some of the other "contenders." Who knows "Islamey'"? I didn't and I've been a classical music lover/listener for many, many decades. So I went to Amazon to hear a snippet of it and was highly unimpressed.

Jan. 13 2011 11:46 AM
NORMAN from Rockville Centre

The "Hammerklavier" surely should have been a choice.It is Beethoven at his most sublime and physically challenging. The adagio movement is very difficult to hold and a less than virtuoso pianist can easily let the movement get away. The spiritual and intellectual quality of this sonata more than compensates for the flash and showy technical brilliance of the othjer choices.

Jan. 13 2011 11:21 AM
Christopher Reilly from Tampa, Florida

From the film, "Shine". Who can forget the sinister tones in the voice of Sir John Gielgud, playing David Helfgott's piano teacher at the Royal Academy for Music, warning him 'not the Rach 3' (Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 3.), and actor Noah Taylor as the youthful Helfgott asking whether he considered him 'mad enough' in order to try it.

Jan. 13 2011 10:30 AM
Steve from Bx

To those wondering about the absence of the Hammerklavier or Brahms' 2nd: It would appear that almost always when virtuosity (read showiness) is the main consideration true quality or profundity is sacrificed. Paganini's pieces are certainly virtuosic or flashy, but clearly don't belong in the same discussion as e.g. the Kreutzer Sonata.

Jan. 13 2011 10:17 AM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

You've got to be kidding? I don't think any of us will live long enough to answer or argue "which is the best...." or "who is the best....". The question is unanswerable

I've walked through the Uffizi Palace and the Academia in Florence and if i tried to pick the best masterpiece I would drive myself insane.

Can you pick a "most beautiful" rose from a garden of roses?

John Lennon said it best..."Let it be".

Jan. 13 2011 09:56 AM
RayW from Rye Brook, NY

My vote goes to the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody 12 recorded by Murray Perahia.

Jan. 13 2011 09:31 AM
Dr. George B

You left out Liszt's Grand Galop chromatique. Anyway, remember that Georges Cziffra was the best person to play some of these pieces. Chopin-Godowsky etudes are the most difficult by any standard. Unfortunately there is no good complete recording. Libetta's recording of just one is amazing.

As far as the most familiar piece--Rachmaninov's 3rd. The new recording by Andnes is amazing--after that Argerich--
Please do not chose your usual mediocre pianists.

Jan. 13 2011 09:30 AM
Dottie Gutenkauf from Plainfield, NJ

How come Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand isn't on the list? Leon Fleischer's recording was played recently and was really stunning.

Jan. 13 2011 09:24 AM
Custos Libros from Manhattan

I agree with Levan--very surprised that H'klavier isn't on the list, or liszt.

Jan. 13 2011 09:22 AM
Levan from NJ/NY

I am rather surprised that Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata isn't on the list.. This piece is undoubtedly one of the most difficult to play pieces for keyboards ever composed.. And there is nothing like its Adagio sostenuto when played right.. I wish I can see a great performance of this incredible piece of music live once.. I think that requires another Schnabel, Kempf, or Horowitz though..

Jan. 13 2011 08:19 AM
Bruce Chadwick from Brooklyn, NY

Since this October will mark Liszt's 200th birthday, I choose his great Sonata in B Minor as the most virtuosic and sublime composition of the 19th Century.

Jan. 13 2011 03:48 AM
Constantine from New York

I voted for the Godowsky, though I agree with Michael Meltzer that their virtuosity is gratuitous. Of the works listed, the Ravel and Liszt are the only ones I have any use for personally (which does not mean that I think nobody else should). (Liszt wrote three versions of the Transcendental Etudes, of which the second was even more difficult than the final one. I don't know how it would measure up against the Godowsky in sheer virtuosity.)

Jan. 13 2011 01:54 AM

I thought the Brahms 2d Piano Concerto was considered the "Mt Everest" of piano pieces. It isn't even on your list.

Who makes up these lists? Does he have a musical education?

Jan. 13 2011 12:47 AM
Michael Meltzer

Like a lot of people, I heard Godowsky arrangements of Chopin Etudes years ago, and after an intital reaction of "WOW!" and "How can a human being do THAT?," I really didn't have much inclination to go back and hear them again.
When you hear Chopin Etudes played by old-timers like Rubinstein and Horowitz, or more recently by pianinsts like Agustin Anievas and Juana Zayas, you are hearing poetry. The technical mastery required is submerged in the musical experience, not worn like a badge.
The Godowsky arrangements begin to move into the arena of vacuous knuckle-busters, gratuitous difficulty that's short on content. I'd hate to see that kind of composition win anything, it's not what listening to music is about.
Otherwise, we'd all listen to Dohnanyi Exercises with our morning coffee.

Jan. 12 2011 09:35 PM
Eric from Long island

What does anyone think about the martinu fantaisie et toccata h281? Heard Sara Davis Buechner play it at merkin hall in NYC in 2009 and it was a show stopper.

Jan. 12 2011 09:27 PM
Eric from Long island

What does anyone think about the Martinu Fantasie et toccata H281? I heard Sara Davis Buechner play this live at Merkin hall in NYC in 2009 and it's a showstopper.

Jan. 12 2011 09:22 PM
George Damasevitz from Vestal NY

Fortunately,there will be no consensus on this subject. Pianists are all different and will respond differently to technical challenges.What one pianist finds difficult another may not. What is also important and not possible to objectively assess is the interpretive challenge in a piece of music. Works considered relatively simple may present challenges of interpretation, a component of virtuosity too often overlooked.

Jan. 12 2011 09:21 PM
Mikhayl from Brooklyn, NY

Among these choices, I voted Godowsky.

The answer to almost every single question about music could feasibly be Beethoven. His late opus sonatas (111, 101 and 106) are among the most challenging and virtuosic music ever written for the keyboard. They also have the added bonus of intellectual and emotional depth that towers above most art.

You should air these sonatas from time to time. I don't recall ever hearing them on WQXR.

Jan. 12 2011 08:39 PM
Michael Meltzer

I've been asking WQXR for both the Horowitz and the Richter "Pictures at an Exhibition" for an entire year. I hate to see S. Rackovsky and Rob get in an argument about two monumental and towering performances, two of the greatest piano recordings of the twentieth century.

Jan. 12 2011 08:09 PM
Lisa Hirsch from Oakland, CA

Michael Brenner nails it in one, er, two. I'm guessing that of the people who've posted (and most of those who've voted), only he and I have ever heard the Godowsky.

And, hahah, before I saw the choices, I was thinking "maybe one of Hamelin's pieces."

Jan. 12 2011 08:02 PM
len from brooklyn ny(fagedabouit)

wrong question, I think.
Virtuosity is like art- in the eye or ear of the beholder or listener.
the true virtuoso plays with his heart and soul and not just his fingers. what matters it, if the mechanics are astounding but empty. It is the virtuosity of humanity that counts, whether its playing clair de lune or the Appassionata sonata by Beethoven.

Jan. 12 2011 08:01 PM
Michael Meltzer

I've transplanted my comment from "Piano Greats," it really belongs here:
The repertoire for the piano is so vast, that this can be a really interesting and extensive pursuit and fun to watch. The trick is to stick to excellence in inspiration, architecture and exploring the sonorities of the instrument, not to get bogged down in "most difficult."
There are a few works that serve both ends, Gaspard de la Nuit and the Goldberg Variations coming immediately to mind, and those two works have been showcased pretty well on WQXR already. The Strauss/Schulz-Evler "Blue Danube" is an interesting novelty, but there isn't enough content to stand up under repeated play, and the Balakirev: Islamey gets downright annoying in a hurry, even before it's over.
There are many works of genius or near-genius that are technically challenging enough to require an accomplished pianist with artistry, like the Liszt, Barber and Griffes Sonatas, Pictures at an Exhibition, Carnaval & op.17 Fantasy of Schumann, Schubert B-flat Sonata, the Chopin Ballades, Brahms Paganini Variations, a lot of Beethoven, and many, many more without even mentioning concertos.
Lets hope that all the suggestions get to see air time.
Also, I'm surprised that your banner choices omit the Strauss/Schulz-Evler. You could throw in Horowitz' Bizet: Carmen Fantasy while you're at it.

Jan. 12 2011 08:01 PM
Michael Brenner from Brooklyn

On this list, Godowsky by far.

Look, let's cut all this and just ask Marc-Andre Hamelin which one it is. He's probably either played it or wrote it.

Jan. 12 2011 07:53 PM
S. Rackovsky from Rochester, NY

There is only one recording of Pictures at an Exhibition. That is by Sviatoslav Richter. There are no others. None.

Jan. 12 2011 07:38 PM
Rob from Manhattan

My personal choice would be Mussorgsky's "Pictures For An Exhibition" as performed by Vladimir Horowitz. Absolutely phenomenal! My speakers actually move across the floor when he gets to the end of The Great Gate of Kiev.

Jan. 12 2011 07:29 PM
Larry from Rutherford

The Rhapsody in Blue; Beethoven's Emperor Concerto; and Lorin Hollander's recording of the Pictures at an Exhibition aint just bunches of chopped liver....

Jan. 12 2011 06:51 PM
JR from Westchester, NY

Is virtuosic really a word? I wonder.

Jan. 12 2011 06:25 PM

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