Top Five Unplayable Works (That Were Eventually Played)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fast hands at the piano (Flickr/eyesore9)

There are difficult pieces and then there are those deemed impossible. For as long as composers have been creating these notoriously hard pieces, virtuosos have been around to answer the call, raising the bar for both what musicians can accomplish and composers can imagine. We’ve collected five pieces initially though unplayable, but eventually were performed. Luckily, we listeners are the beneficiaries.

1. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto

The sensational circumstances surrounding Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major are well known: the composer took solace in writing following his disastrous three-week long marriage and subsequent suicide attempt. When he showed the result to his friend Leopold Auer, who was the Czar’s Court Violinist, Auer declared the lightning quick passages in the first and third movements unplayable. It took three years before another Russian violinist, Adolf Brodsky, premiered the work. It’s now become a favorite for virtuosos from Jascha Heifetz to Joshua Bell.

2. Ligeti: Etudes

As a young pianist based in Paris, Pierre-Laurent Aimard had a reputation for being able to play any piece put in front of him. Gyorgi Ligeti took it as a challenge and he set about writing his études, some of the most difficult music ever composed for the piano. Aimard, who once said, “We are living in a world that is too easygoing," did eventually master the works. Jeremy Denk, who recorded some of the individual works in his most recent CD, told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, “[Ligeti’s] written music at the edge of the human possibility for performing it. That is, so fast and complex as to be almost impossible to keep track of."

3. Nancarrow: Player Piano

Human limitations didn’t stop 20th century maverick composer Conlon Nancarrow. He employed a player piano to realize his treacherous keyboard studies that no 10-fingered keyboardist would be able to master. The rhythmic complexities and their blazing fast speeds certainly dazzle.

4. Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit

In the early 1900s, Maurice Ravel made it his mission to compose a work more difficult than the notoriously tricky Islamey by Russian composer Mily Balakirev. Using Aloysius Bertrand’s poetry collection Gaspard de la Nuit, Ravel created a three-part work of the same title, based on a trio of macabre passages. The work itself is a triathlon of sorts for a pianist: there are finger-breaking shimmering effects in the first movement, a dense texture of sound requiring three staves in the second, and immensely fast repeated notes in the third

5. Barber: Violin Concerto

In 1939, the well-heeled American soap baron Samuel Fels commissioned Samuel Barber to write a violin concerto for the millionaire’s adopted son, Ivo Briselli, who was a talented violinist. Upon completion, Briselli called the piece, particularly its quicksilver third movement, unplayable (though it’s uncertain whether this designation was due to difficulty or aesthetic judgment). In any event, Fels demanded his money back, but Barber was able to keep the $1,000 payment after a Curtis student proved the piece was in fact playable.

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Comments [9]

susanna from New York

The name of the violinist for whom Barber composed his only violin concerto was Iso,NOT Ivo. He was NOT adopted by Samuel Fels, but instead was his ward. He NEVER claimed any of the 3 movement to be "unplayable". Barber was permitted to keep the first installment,$500,of the total fee of $1,000. The balance was neither offered nor requested. Please visit and then consider a revision of your online notes. Your public deserves an accurate history.

Jan. 28 2015 04:58 PM

I thought Bazzini piece was pretty difficult to play. It has extremely fast parts with double stop on top of left hand pizz. Oh, and for piano, the flight of bumblebee Cziffra version probably belongs up there. I think Yuja Wang is about the only one who can play this one precisely.

May. 22 2014 01:15 PM
Lee Lieberman from Fort Lee, NJ

What? ,no mention of Alkan. The usual reason given for not playing his Opus 39 Etudes in the concert hall or on the radio is that it is too hard. It's just rally challenging music to listen to--as well as being very original and yet somehow reminds you of a much later composer! On the radio we don't see the tremendous physical effort and endurance involved.

Jul. 25 2012 02:15 AM
Dan Leeman from Ottawa ON

It is neat that Les in Miami mentioned Busoni's piano concerto with the
mens' chorus in the 4th movement. This piece was played by the New Jersey
Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall ( I believe) last May with Canadian
pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin who makes a habit of playing the "big stuff"
as well as all the standard piano music.

Jul. 24 2012 10:54 AM
Mat Dirjish from New York, NY

Aside from an attempt to raise the bar of virtuosity for a select few musicians, is there a point to writing something that's impossible to play, or as close to impossible as humanly possible? Back in an era when computers and digital reproduction where just a fantasy in some scientists' minds, the point may have been to challenge the "arrogant virtuosi" of the day. In 2012, anything is truly possible and reproducible via the digital tools at our command. This illicits the question, is something incredibly complex and fast or impossibly slow and articulate always worth hearing?

Jul. 23 2012 11:34 AM

Schoenberg Violin Concerto Op.36:
Arnold Schoenberg dedicated his Violin Concerto to Anton Webern. His original intent had been to have his brother-in-law, Rudolph Kolisch, play the premier performance. Subsequently, Schoenberg changed his mind and sent the score to Jascha Heifetz. After reviewing the score, Heifetz returned it to Schoenberg, declaring that it was unplayable. Schoenberg's comment on this rejection was: "I am very glad that I have brought one more unplayable piece into the repertoire. I want this concerto to be difficult and the little finger to be longer. I can wait."

Jul. 22 2012 02:01 PM
Christopher Brooks from Lancaster PA

John Cage's Freeman Etudes are pretty much unplayble by anyone but Irvine Arditti. Here he is on YouTube:

Not sure why anyone would want to play them; they are ugly and lacking in affect, though Arditti does a mind-boggling job of it.

Jul. 22 2012 01:41 PM
Jeffrey Biegel from New York

Amazing how many pieces deemed unplayable are now part of the repertoire. Add Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, which only became played more often in the last 15 years. At Juilliard in 1983, only 6 of us entered the concerto competition for this, compared to 25 players for the Mozart competition. Now, many play it. Signs of the times! For me, there are several solo piano pieces which are virtually impossible, including Paul de Schloezer's hardly known "Etude de Concert in E-flat Major, Opus 1, no. 1", which Josef Lhevinne only played. I will record it this week for Steinway & Sons. Hope to get through it, as I believe it would be a wonderful double-note work for other pianists to tackle.

Jul. 22 2012 12:15 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I think Busoni's Piano Concerto is among the most difficult to perform for both soloist and orchestra; and the long wait until the male chorus joins is a hurdle of a different sort. Whether the Busoni or Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata is the more difficult I leave to the opinion of professional pianists and other experts.

Jul. 22 2012 09:05 AM

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