10 Best Classical Piano Sonatas?
What is a piano sonata?
After you have gone through this list, it will be clear to you that a piano sonata can be a lot of different things - for instance a short, four-minute, one movement piece; or a five movement work of epic proportions. Perhaps the safest way to answer the question is to say that a piano sonata is any piece for piano that the composer has chosen to call a sonata.
However, at least during the Classical era (the golden age of the piano sonata), sonatas had certain easily identifiable traits. In Haydn's, Mozart's, Beethoven's or Schubert's time, a sonata mostly had three or four movements: a quick one to start with, a slow second movement, perhaps a scherzo or minuet as third movement, and then another fast movement as a finale.
The first movement, and perhaps one or two of the other ones, were composed using the so called sonata form. Other common sonata movements could be a Rondo (often used as a last movement) or a set of variations.
Horowitz plays Scarlatti
Scarlatti: Sonata in E major, L 23
Our first example was taken from an earlier era, when this form hadn't yet crystallized. The piano sheet music of Scarlatti's over five hundred sonatas is an amazing treasure-trove of short, charming pieces. Italian baroque music, often with an unmistakably Spanish flavor (Scarlatti wrote many of these works while living in Madrid).
Haydn: Sonata in C, Hob. XVI:50 (Lang Lang)
Haydn Sonata in C, Hob. XVI:50
Without Joseph Haydn, the history of the piano sonata would have looked a lot different. In his around sixty sonatas, the piano sonata evolved into the well-balanced, three or four movement form that Mozart and Beethoven would continue to develop. Haydn's humorous, playful and dramatic sonatas aren't played as often as those of his younger colleagues, but certainly deserve to be heard more often.
Mitsuko Uchida plays Mozart
Mozart "Alla Turca" K 331
Mozart wrote 18 piano sonatas, of which this is the most well known. The last movement especially belongs to the most recognizable pieces in the whole piano literature. Its meandering sixteenth-notes and drum rolls, meant to imitate the Turkish janissary bands, is very entertaining. The clip here gives you the first movement, however - a very beautiful set of variations on a theme.
Beethoven's piano sonatas are certainly the most important collection of sonatas ever written, and to be honest, probably several of the 32 should make their way into the top 10 of all time. But I want to give you as much variety as possible, and so I have chosen only one. The Appassionata sonata is one of the great monuments of western music. Also Beethoven himself thought it one of his greatest works. The brooding unisons and sudden chord explosions of the first movement retains their power after two hundred years.
Appassionata played by Daniel Barenboim
Brendel plays the 2nd movement of Schubert's great A major sonata
Schubert: Sonata in A major, D 959
Schubert's piano sonatas have never received even a fraction of the attention that the ones by Beethoven have been assured of ever since they were composed. For a long time the sonatas by Schubert were considered less valuable than his shorter works, like the impromptus and songs. During the course of the 20th century, people have gradually recognized their greatness. Especially the three last sonatas, written only months before the composer's death, are now programmed relatively often, even if their gigantic dimensions make them a challenge for pianists.
Chopin: Sonata in B flat minor
Chopin wrote three sonatas, which perhaps haven't exactly suffered from the kind of neglect that Schubert's sonatas were victim to, but nevertheless they aren't heard that often. This is of course due to the number of immensely popular shorter works that flowed from the pen of Chopin, and perhaps also to that slight suspicion that Romantic composers couldn't write proper sonatas. It would be impossible to leave them out of such a list as this, though, especially since the movement I have picked is actually one of Chopin's most famous pieces quite in its own right. It has been used either in its pure form or in an orchestral arrangement at all sorts of momentous and sad occasions: The Chopin Funeral March from the B-flat minor sonata.
Funeral March from Chopin's sonata in b flat major
Excerpt from Liszt's Sonata (Martha Argerich)
The Liszt sonata
Liszt left only one contribution to the piano sonata genre, but one that is guaranteed a place in every list of this kind. Even most of the people who find Liszt a bit shallow and bombastic sometimes have to admit that this work is a true masterpiece. Its half hour long only movement is Liszt very personal adaptation of the sonata form. It is both a single movement written in a kind of gigantic sonata form and a fast-slow-fast structure, reminding of the classical three-movement convention. The interpretations of the inner meaning of this intensely dramatic piece have been many and varied. A common theory is that the sonata was inspired the Faust legend; another idea that has been put forward is that it's an illustration of the Christian myth, from God's creation of the world to the victory of Christ over the Devil. I think one may safely say that whatever dramatic story of angels and demons you can come up with, it will have to be pretty thrilling to match this music.
Claudio Arrau plays Brahms Sonata op. 5
Brahms: Sonata in f minor
Brahms is another one of those Romantic composers that isn't exactly famous for writing piano sonatas, but still have one or two masterpieces of that kind hiding somewhere in their production. In Brahms' case, it was in his youthful years that he wrote his three great sonatas, of which the third is an undisputed masterpiece, and one of the really great sonatas of the Romantic era. It is in five movements, of epic proportions, and seems at least partly to tell a story of love: on the first page of the second movement, Brahms cites a love poem by Sternau. Here is the powerful, majestic first movement.
Scriabin's "Black Mass" (Yevgeny Sudbin)
Scriabin: Sonata No 9 "Black Mass"
Let's move on to the 20th century, and to a somewhat odd bird in the piano literature. The Russian Alexander Scriabin started out as a Chopin-loving, romantic composer, but ended up as a very forward-looking, almost atonal composer with a strange, mystical world-view that influenced his work and filled his music with a very peculiar atmosphere. This particular, very thrilling Scriabin sonata has become a something of a favorite with pianists because if played well, it can really spell-bind an audience.
Prokofiev 7th Sonata
Another Russian will be honoured with the 10th spot on our list. Prokofiev had Classicist tendencies, and so it is quite natural that he should be one of the great sonata composers of the 20th century. As in the rest of his work, the piano sonatas by Prokofiev are filled with humor, sarcasm, heavenly lyricism, downright brutality and a lot of pianistic brilliance. The last movement of the 7th Sonata, with its notorious, machine-like crescendo will be a fitting conclusion to this little list of mine.
Prokofiev 7th sonata, last movement (Sokolov)
Of course, I am very well aware that it's somewhat ludicrous to draw a line at ten like this. But what I wanted to do was to give you an overview of some of the most important sonata composers. I have stopped at ten sonatas, but that is no reason for you to do the same. Please help me to complete this list with your own recommendations, and nominate the sonatas that you think should rank among the ten, twenty or hundred best of all time!