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The composers of the great piano concertos of the 19th and 20th centuries were almost all outstanding pianists themselves. Their works for piano and orchestra served not least to show contemporary audiences their own virtuosity. There are, however, exceptions in this present collection: Robert Schumann for example who had to give up his planned career as a pianist at an early stage and composed his only contribution to the genre for his wife, Clara. Then there is Maurice Ravel, whose own keyboard skills were not sufficient for the horrendous technical difficulties he came up with. For the same reason, Piotr Illych Tchaikovsky’s first and most famous piano concerto was premiered by Hans von Bülow, later the first chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

In all other cases, the works give an indication in performances by competent performers of how the composers themselves might have played. From Ludwig van Beethoven’s ability to make the keyboard sing on the one hand, to his striking accents on the other, or the commanding majesty of Franz Liszt, and from the effortlessly light fingers and delicate expressiveness of Frédéric Chopin, to the strength and power of Johannes Brahms whose hands, as the required chord fingering show, were unusually large and powerful. In the twentieth century, the circle of pianist composers expanded: Béla Bartók, for example, whose works include both percussive and austerely lyrical passages; Sergei Prokofiev, renowned for his unbounded joy in playing, and Sergei Rachmaninov who was voted the best pianist of the 20th century in a survey of the most well-known piano virtuosos of our time. Luckily, the tradition of performers who are up to these great works continues to the present day.

Ever since they were founded, the Berliner Philharmoniker have performed together with the world’s greatest pianists. The present selection ranges from Martha Argerich, Maurizio Pollini, Krystian Zimerman, Emanuel Ax, András Schiff and Mitsuko Uchida, who have all been playing with the orchestra over several decades, to Boris Berezowski, Yuja Wang and Daniil Trifonov, who delighted audiences at their debuts with the Philharmoniker with stylistic maturity, effortless technique and magical, subtle timbres. Yevgeny Kissin, who performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker when he was only 17 years old, and was described by Herbert von Karajan as a “genius”, plays Grieg’s atmospherically intense Piano Concerto at the 2011 New Year’s Eve Concert under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

Other esteemed guests in this selection include Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Arcadi Volodos, whose appearances simultaneously show the wide range of styles of the orchestra’s piano concerts: from the delicate, French keyboard culture in Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, to the full-blown, thundering Russian sentiment in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, a testament to both the tremendous ability to transform the instrument, and its great performers, who do not see virtuosity as an end in itself, but whose focus lies rather in a profound exploration of musical masterpieces.

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