Rachmaninoff: Étude-tableau in D minor, Op. 33, No. 5
This 3-minute study is not especially well known but I feel it’s one of Rachmaninoff’s most vivid piano pieces. It starts with an unhurried dance rhythm, taking root in the sombre low register of the piano and gradually climbing. At certain moments the harmonies echo the ancient sound of Russian Orthodox choral music.
Henri Dutilleux: Choral et variations from Sonate (1948)
Dutilleux is somewhat of a musicians’ composer, thus his Piano Sonata is extremely sophisticated in ways musicians can appreciate. However it also has a raw physicality that is not often present in his other works. This massive set of variations is the finale of a three-movement sonata, all of which is worth checking out if you don’t happen to know it.
William Albright: The Nightmare Fantasy Rag (A Night On Rag Mountain)
A brilliant mash-up of Scott Joplin, Franz Liszt, modernism and almost heavy metal (near the end). Albright published this in 1970 during a revival of ragtime music in the U. S. I stumbled upon the piece a few years ago and literally laughed out loud the first time I heard it.
Mendelssohn: Song Without Words, Op. 30, No. 1
Mendelssohn tried out a few boring titles for a group of his piano pieces before arriving at the ingenious “Songs Without Words.” They were a smashing success in Mendelssohn’s time and were played in living rooms all over Europe. Here is one of my favourites, performed at a house concert on one of my favourite pianos.
György Ligeti: White on White from Etudes, book III (2001)
Ligeti took inspiration from all kinds of sources including Balinese gamelan music and African polyrhythms, both of which can be felt in White on White. Using almost exclusively the white keys of the piano (hence the title), the piece starts out slow and austere, then launches into a mesmerizing whirlwind of rhythmic complexity.