What is your favorite Piano Concerto?

By Michael Lewin
Posted August 2018

The great Artur Rubinstein, when asked what his favorite piece was, always answered “whatever I am playing at the moment.” This is of course, the perfect answer, at least for solo repertoire. The amount of piano music is vast, and there are endless favorite choices. One must be absolutely committed to the music one is performing at that moment- it would feel like a betrayal otherwise.

But what about when the question is “what is your favorite piano concerto?”

When I have the opportunity to choose what I play, and the conductor and orchestra are good, my answer is almost always the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15.

I will never forget lying in bed in the dark as a child, and turning on the radio. A massive tympani roll burst forth, and music of unbelievable intensity, inevitability and emotional power consumed me. I was pinned to the bed, hardly breathing. The huge first movement went by in a flash, as though I had somehow always known it. I wasn’t listening so much as living the music, recognizing myself in it. The slow movement transported me, with its otherworldly beauty, feelings of love and prayer. Then the cathartic release of the Finale, so exciting and gypsy-tinged. The majesty of the music and the power of the orchestral and piano writing completely overwhelmed me.

When I play the Brahms 1st I am completely fulfilled by its tremendous emotional range, dynamic scope, and the sheer physicality of the piano writing. It is a unique combination of classicism and romanticism, youthful passion and mature wisdom. Despite the huge canvas and grandiose piano writing, there is a feeling of chamber music and true partnership with both conductor and orchestra. At the end, I am drained both physically and emotionally by this 50- minute colossus, and always come out the other side indescribably enriched.

That first recording that I heard as a boy was performed by Leon Fleisher, with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. It has remained, for me, a touchstone recording. The Brahms D minor was always Fleisher’s “go to” Concerto as well, his debut choice with Monteux at 16, and for his Queen Elizabeth Competition triumph. Many years later, in a dream come true, Leon became my teacher. Working on the Brahms with him was an unforgettable experience, one that carried a real sense of legacy. His approval and enthusiasm for my performance meant the world to me. In a burst of excitement, I said “Leon, now I own this concerto!” His reply- wise and also heartbreaking considering what happened to his right hand, was- “Michael, all we can do is rent it.”

Pianists and music lovers- what is your favorite piano concerto?