Dvorak Cello Concerto (1st place recording for me, Mischa Maisky)
Written while Czech composer Dvorak was in Indiana. He received word that his sister-in-law, Josephine, a woman he had been in love with and remained good friends with, was seriously ill. With that in mind, he quoted an old Czech folk song dear to Josephine in the slow movement. After he finished the entire work, he heard that she had died. He went back to the concerto and re-wrote the ending of the final movement, inserting a poignant quote from the 2nd movement just moments before the triumphant ending.
Bruch “Scottish Fantasy” (Jascha Heifetz)
A four movement work invoking the beautiful scenery of Scotland. I don’t know what else to tell you about this piece, but the music speaks for itself, and no one plays it better than Heifetz.
Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto
The fact that Eric Carmen use the main theme of the middle movement in his song made even more famous by Celine Dion, “All By Myself,” still doesn’t ruin it! Breathtaking moment: 2nd movement, the entrance of the flutes after the cadenza. Interesting note: Rachmaninoff often “signed” his music with the rhythm you hear in the final four notes of the entire piece, which says “Rach- ma-ni-Noff.”
Beethoven Violin Concerto
From what I have read, the premier of this piece was a disaster. The violinist was not prepared, and the audience was not receptive. Since then, it has become part of the standard repertoire. Many complain that it is too full of scales and arpeggios, and yet it is still one of the most difficult concertos to pull off. In spite of all of that, this is one of the most sunny works for the violin there is. Beethoven was known for being a little grouchy, but in his music, you can hear what a wonderful soul he had--serious at times, but often joyful. He's also quite a prankster.
Ravel Piano Concerto
Ravel was considered to be a French Impressionist, and is often compared to Debussy. However, one of Ravel’s greatest influence was American composer George Gershwin. Once Gershwin approached Ravel for composition lessons. Ravel essentially told him that it would be fruitless to turn Gershwin into a 2nd-rate Ravel, when he could be a 1st-rate Gershwin. He also reminded him that being a 1st-rate Gershwin was a lot more lucrative! At any rate, this piano concerto shows a little of the jazz influence he gained from his association from Gershwin. In spite of that, you can’t miss the colors always present in Ravel’s most impressionistic music. Especially notable is an oboe solo that occurs halfway into the 2nd movement.
Barber Violin Concerto ( Elmar Oliviera's recording is my favorite)
There is a funny story behind this piece, though I’m not sure the facts are accurate. What I heard is that this piece was commissioned by the father of a young violinist. When Barber completed the 1st and 2nd movements, the son looked at what had been written and complained that it was too easy for a violinist of his caliber. In response, Barber wrote an insanely fast 3rd movement, which the young violinist found unplayable. So, the father sued Barber. Barber found another young violinist who could play it, and won his case. No doubt many aspects of this story have been fictionalized, but I'll let the musicologists worry about that. Once again, the oboe is featured in the slow movement--and in this case, it is arguably the single most beautiful moment in the entire piece.
Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello
To me, Brahms is one of the most under-appreciated composers, most audiences preferring Tchaikovsky’s simple but lovely melodies to Brahms’ rich harmonies and complex structure. His Violin Concerto is actually tied in my opinion to the Double Concerto, but I’m trying to limit my list to one composer each. I chose the Double because of the story behind it: Brahms was a great friend of violinist Joseph Joachim, until Brahms sided with Joachim’s wife during his divorce proceedings. (Brahms gave evidence that Joachim’s wife, Amelie, had not cheated on him.) Years later, Brahms wrote this concerto as a peace offering, the violin part representing Joachim, and the cello part representing Brahms. In the first movement, the violin and cello play fast and furiously, taking turns out-playing the other. The 2nd movement represents reconciliation, and the 3rd movement is energetic and enthusiastic.
Mozart Concerto No. 5 in A
Mozart wrote his five famous violin concertos in the period of one year, and you can see the development of his style grow immensely from the first concerto to his last. I would listen to this concerto at night as a girl, and I would stay awake just for the last movement, which implements an exciting Turkish theme. Some could argue that if I were to choose from all of Mozart’s concertos, some of his piano concertos are as sublime as anything ever written. The only problem is that he wrote so many of them, and I am partial to the violin.
Mozart Symphonie Concertante for violin and viola
I can't help it. Though I just said I couldn't pick two pieces by the same composer...Nearly everything by Mozart belongs on a top 10 list, what can I say? This is simply the best piece ever!
Bach Concerto for Violin and Oboe
Proving my point, if I hadn't done so already, that the oboe always gets the best melodies. And like many others on this list, the 2nd movement is what makes this piece so memorable.
Bartok's Violin Concerto No. 2 (Yehudi Menhuin), and Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 1 (David Oistrach).
Neither of these pieces is likely to be popular with general audiences, but I feel like they are significant works, and I would love to have a reason to learn them both. Bartok was one of the world’s first ethno-musicologists. He went around tiny villages throughout Hungary and Romania with a phonograph to record the folk songs of the indigenous people. He found that actual folk music was nothing like the interpretations given by Brahms and Liszt. He incorporated new harmonies and sounds in all of his music. Some of it sounds bizarre, but it’s sure fun to play.
The Shostakovich is unusual in form, and it contains an especially long cadenza in which Shostakovich seems to evoke the music of Bach, blending it with his own anguished style.