The most difficult piano pieces of all times: 5 pieces that even professionals fear

Piano Theory, 24.09.2020

Sooner or later every piano teacher or pianist is confronted with the question of “the most difficult piano piece” of all time. Even if the technical difficulties of a piece say nothing about the musical quality of a composition, and of course every pianist has different anatomical conditions and individual strengths and weaknesses, the question is perfectly legitimate.

In fact, the question is particularly exciting when one considers that even experienced amateur pianists often let themselves be fooled by virtuoso performances after years of instruction. As a result, pieces which, with a little bit of hard work and training, can be mastered even by talented amateurs, are quickly labelled “impossible to play”.

Others, on the other hand, are quite unimpressive in the concert hall, although they demand a great deal from the pianist, both technically and musically. The following five pieces are so difficult to play that they were considered unplayable at times and still demand skills from pianists that cannot be acquired through practice alone.

The most difficult piano sonata: Beethoven’s No. 29 B flat major op. 106

Behind the initially inconspicuous-sounding designation “Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major op. 106” hides Beethoven’s famous “Hammerklavier Sonata”. This sonata is one of Beethoven’s late works and takes not only the performer but also the 18th century piano to the limits of the possible. For a long time this monumental work was considered unplayable.

In fact, the probably most technically difficult piano piece to date was only performed publicly decades after Beethoven’s death by the famous piano virtuoso Franz Liszt. However, Beethoven set new standards not only in piano music. The Bonn-born composer was often far ahead of his time and paid little attention to the technical standard of the instruments of the time. His exclamation became famous in this context when he heard of the criticism of the violinist Schuppanzigh. 

Beethoven is said to have reacted to his complaint about the difficulty of one of his pieces with the sentence “What do I care about his miserable fiddle”.

The unplayable fantasy: Balakirev – Islamej

More than 40 years after Beethoven’s death, another piece of music went down in the history of piano music because of its immense degree of difficulty. The oriental fantasy Islamej by the Russian composer Mili Alexejewitsch Balakirev was published in Moscow in 1870.

In this almost eight-minute-long piece, the interpreter is required to master everything that a world-class virtuoso must or can master. Thirds, octaves, jumps and runs must be mastered at high tempo with the utmost precision. Hans von Bülow, one of the great pianists of the 19th century, described Balakirev’s composition as technically the most difficult piano piece of all.

The meaning of Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit”

Inspired by the prose ballads of the writer Aloysius Bertrand, Maurice Ravel published probably his most important piano work in 1908. “Gaspard de la nuit” is considered the pinnacle of piano literature and sets new standards in many respects. Ravel himself had set himself the goal of writing a work for piano that would surpass the requirements of Balakirev’s Islamej.

The result is a new peak of virtuosity. The special thing about “Gaspard de la nuit” is that it is not only a technically extremely difficult piece, but also enormously challenges the pianist in its tonal composition. Thus the already difficult passages are often played very quietly and with minimal gradations in volume in order to achieve very specific accentuations and effects.

Stravinsky’s Ballet for piano – Petrushka

Petrushka is a ballet by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, which was first performed in 1911 in the orchestral version. Ten years later Stravinsky wrote a three-movement piano sonata based on this score for his friend Arthur Rubinstein. The realization for the piano was so demanding and virtuoso that even today only few pianists dare to perform the work. Petruschka undoubtedly counts among the milestones of the piano literature.

The most difficult piano etudes: Ligeti’s piano works 

Between 1985 and 2001 Ligeti wrote a total of 18 etudes in 3 volumes. In addition to immense technical challenges, the pianist is confronted with extremely complex rhythmic constructions in Ligeti’s etudes. Using a kind of polyrhythm, Ligeti creates the sensation that different tempos move parallel to each other in one and the same piece.

Which of the 18 etudes is the most difficult can be debated. In any case, the etudes “The Devil’s Ladder” and “Columna Infinita” are worth mentioning. In the latter, even the composer suggests that the piece is best performed by a programmable piano, and only in the postscript does he state that a performance by a pianist with appropriate preparation is also conceivable. It is self-explanatory that there are hardly any recordings of these pieces and that Ligeti’s works are seldom included in the programs of even world-class concert pianists.

“Easier” than expected: Fantasy-Impromptu and La Campanella

When it comes to encores in the concert hall, pianists like to take up pieces that are particularly popular with the audience (because they are “virtuosic”). What many in the audience do not know is that some of these pieces are far from being as difficult as they sound and, unlike the works mentioned above, tend to be greatly overestimated in terms of difficulty. One example is the Fantasy Impromptu by Chopin. Of course this is not an easy piano piece, but it is so well composed that it can be mastered without a concert exam. 

Famous for his impressive compositions is the Hungarian virtuoso Franz Liszt. Some of his works are on the same level as the above mentioned “unplayable” pieces. But often the impression is deceptive. For many of Liszt’s works, it requires first and foremost sporting spirit. With the naturally necessary “basic talent” and a few years of experience, pieces such as the Hungarian Rhapsodies or Liszt’s arrangement of “La Campanella” (originally by Niccoló Paganini for violin) can be “trained” well even for non-professionals with a lot of work.

Yacine Khorchi

Yacine Khorchi

Yacine is one of the founders of music2me and the brain behind our piano course. After graduating from high school, he first completed a one-year intensive course of study at a private music school. This was followed by piano studies at Germany’s oldest university of music in Würzburg. He has been teaching piano to students of all ages for over 10 years and has been leading the composition course at the German Pop Academy Frankfurt since April 2013.

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