Anton Kuerti is Canada's senior statesman of the piano. For 50 years, he has been a major figure on Canada's music scene not only as a concert pianist, but also as an artistic director of classical music festivals and concert series. Kuerti's name is synonymous in this country with musical excellence.
CBC Classical asked Kuerti to do the impossible: select the 10 classical piano works that everyone should know. He rose, albeit a tad reluctantly, to the challenge.
Picking the 10 essential pieces of piano music is a trivial exercise in feuilletonisme, about on a par with Monty Python’s demand to summarize Proust in 15 seconds. But it is also a challenge to condense the vast literature created by scores of geniuses over the centuries into this tiny package. So here goes:
J.S. Bach: Prelude & Fugue in E minor from the Well-tempered Clavier, book 2
Kuerti's recommended recording: Arthur Loesser (Doremi).
Bach is of course, strictly speaking, not piano music, but as the first giant of the keyboard he could not be omitted. One could just as well have chosen any other of the 48 chapters of the Well-tempered Clavier, but this one is, for me, a special favourite.
W.A. Mozart: Fantasia in C minor
Mozart’s most stunning works are his operas and piano concerti, but this gem has all the sweetness, fury and profundity of his greatest works. Whenever he writes in minor, only about seven per cent of his output, he says something especially important.
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata in A-flat major Op. 110
ListenKuerti's catalogue on the Analekta label includes a 10-CD box set of the complete piano sonatas by Beethoven.
As in the case of Bach (the “old testament”), one could have chosen any of the 32 sonatas that make up the “new testament.” This one exhibits a sublime sweetness, as well as furor in the second movement, and the arioso and the fugue in the finale give us the closest to vocal and choral writing one can find in piano music, capped by a glorious climax.
Frédéric Chopin: Étude in A-flat major Op. 25, No. 1
Chopin cannot be omitted. I call him the greatest opera composer who never wrote an opera! The Étude in A-flat major Op. 25, No. 1, is a restrained but heavenly aria. Though short, it tells a complete and satisfying story.
Franz Schubert: Impromptu in G-flat major D. 899, No. 3
Schubert’s style combines song, dance rhythms and exquisite modulations. From a wealth of possibilities, let’s choose the Impromptu in G-flat major D. 899, No. 3. The ravishing sound quality churning between the treble and the bass gives this gem a special patina of its own, and the modulations here are beyond delicious!
Robert Schumann: Fantasy Op. 17
Schumann’s Fantasy Op. 17 displays his unique spontaneity. Full of passion, poetry, fire and whimsy, it is his finest large-scale piano work. Shimmering sounds, overwhelming romantic extravagance and spellbinding melodic sequences are all in the foreground.
Felix Mendelssohn: Andante and Rondo Capriccioso Op. 8
Mendelssohn's Andante and Rondo Capriccioso Op. 8 is one of the most famous short piano pieces ever written. Interesting how it starts in major and ends in minor. The Andante reveals a luminous melody, while the rondo is in Mendelssohn’s famous scherzo mood, similar to and in the same key as the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Johannes Brahms: Intermezzo Op. 117, No. 1
Listen Kuerti has recorded Brahms's Intermezzi, Op. 117, for the Analekta label.
Brahms’s late piano works have a nostalgic purity, a summary of his sophisticated wisdom. This Intermezzo’s apparent sweetness is just the surface of a deep sadness. It is a lullaby bidding farewell to the world.
Franz Liszt: Sonata in B minor
Like him or not, Liszt must be included as the composer and pianist who brought the instrument to its blinding pinnacle of virtuosity. Liszt’s Sonata in B minor is a fascinating mixture of bravura and deep feeling. It incorporates a marvelous fugue, rather unusual in the romantic repertoire.
César Franck: Prélude, Chorale and Fugue
A sample of French music must also be included, as it dominated the creative harvest of the turn of the 20th century. However, I shall choose César Franck, the Belgian genius, to represent France. His Prélude, Chorale and Fugue is a heroic work, displaying unique and original sonorities and a monumental fugue, reflecting his devotion to the organ.
Is there an essential work for piano that you would add to Kuerti's list? Let us know in the comments below, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch Angela Hewitt's recital at Koerner Hall in Toronto
Listen to pianist Avan Yu play Schumann with Symphony Nova Scotia
Listen to pianist Lucas Porter's CBC studio session