The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: What are your favorite warhorses? The Ear says warhorses need defending and performing, and also thinks Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is far superior to his Second. | September 30, 2012

ALERT: Phenom conductor Gustavo Dudamel (below) leads the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Stravinsky‘s “The Rite of Spring” LIVE on an NPR webcast today at 5 p.m. EDT on Here he discusses the landmark work with “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel:

By Jacob Stockinger

Just a week ago, last Sunday afternoon, I heard a stunningly good concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

It was the perfect season opener and featured an all-Russian program plus a tribute to two MSO figures who died recently, principal tuba player Paul Haugan (below top) and longtime conductor and music director Roland Johnson (below bottom).

I agree with just about all my critic colleagues, who wrote very positive reviews. It was an extremely impressive and satisfying concert in so many ways.

The “Adagio for Strings” by UW composer John Stevens (below) was less emotionally wrenching than Samuel Barber’s well-known work of the same name. But that only made it more suited to the occasion. It held loss in a level gaze and didn’t sentimentalize the inevitability of death and loss. Plus, the MSO strings sounded so beautiful and so precise.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 “Classical” was performed with all the wit and spark that the neo-Classical pastiche requires. All sections showed the energetic snap the piece calls for.

And who wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the drama and fierce rhythms, the masterful orchestration and sonic beauty of The “Firebird” Suite, which showcased the entire orchestra, by Stravinsky (below).

But as for the finale, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 44, by Tchaikovsky – well I guess I find myself in the role of the dissenter filing a minority report.

MSO music director and conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill), now entering his 19th season in Madison, programmed it at the suggestion of the soloist pianist Garrick Ohlsson. It proved to be a premiere performance in the almost century-long history of the MSO.

And I think for good reason.

One critic praised it as a deserving work and a wonderful piece. And it is true that the performance received an enthusiastic standing ovation.

But I think that reception was largely NOT for the music.

I think the audience’s reaction came from hearing a first-rate performance of a second-rate piece.

It is good once a while to hear this rarely performed work. But let’s not overdo it. It is true that the concerto does have some beautiful moments. But overall, it is ponderously long, especially in the first movement.

The second movement, a piano trio with less piano than cello and violin, was performed exceptionally well by principal cellist Karl Lavine (below top, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) and concertmaster Naha Greenholtz (tomorrow bottom). But it really can’t compare for me with the beauty of the Piano Trio in A minor by the same composer. And the final movement was disjointed, albeit virtuosic.

The virtuosic Ohlsson (below) played the treacherously difficult piano part with aplomb, confidence and conviction.

But too much of the concerto just sounded to The Ear like a reworking of passages from the more famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, which has made so many careers including those of Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Sviatoslav Richter, Van Cliburn, Emil Gilels, Lang-Lang and many others.

What drive and what lyricism that earlier concerto has. It is irresistible. It changes your world. It shakes you up. It stirs you deeply. And makes you hum or sing along.

If it is a warhorse – and it truly is – it is for a good reason. Its magic never fails. It is indisputably great. It is reliable. It never fails to deliver the goods.

It was good to hear the Second Piano Concerto by Tchaikovsky (below), but more as a curiosity than as a great listening experience. The audience would really have gone wild the First Concerto, especially the hands of such a fluent and powerful player as Ohlsson. I also bet it would have meant sellouts for all three performances at a time when symphonies can use all the attendance they can muster.

Perhaps the concert could have concluded with a Rachmaninoff or Prokofiev concerto, or even the Shostakovich Second. Or the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which like the same composer’s great symphonies, stands up to the First Piano Concerto and surpasses the Second Piano Concerto.

So I’ll be anxious to hear what other audience members have to say about Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto? Was it a great work that you liked? Or the great performance that enthralled you?

The Ear wants to hear. You be the critic.

I also want to hear what your own favorite “warhorses” are: J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins or Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons”? Beethoven’s Fifth or Ninth symphonies, or maybe his “Emperor” piano concerto? Rachmaninoff’s Second or Third Piano Concertos or his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini? Mozart’s G minor and “Jupiter” Symphonies, or perhaps his Piano Concerto in D Minor? Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony? Grieg’s Piano Concerto or Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”? Puccini’s opera “La Boheme”? Or maybe Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (at bottom)?

Some very experienced or even jaded listeners will call them “warhorses” and dismiss them.

But so-called warhorses get their name precisely because they are tough and reliable, and because they work. It is laudable to program beyond them, but not to ignore or dismiss them

Warhorses are usually great music that should be performed live more often, great music that will help attract new and younger audiences who might not even know them at all because, unfortunately, “warhorses” aren’t supposed to be played – and, at the risk of seeming unsophisticated, often aren’t.


  1. Rachmaninov piano concerto #2 in C minor is a favorite along with Wagner’s overtures

    Comment by James Moniot — February 22, 2017 @ 4:59 pm

  2. Agreed on both counts – Tchaik 2 was too long at times, though played superbly by all involved. Favorites of mine include the big Beethoven symphonies (5 and 7 in particular), the Tchaikovsky violin concerto (and 5th symphony), and the Symphonie Fantastique, which I had the pleasure of performing this weekend. A magnificent work, made none the worse by its fame, and directed superbly by Maestro Smith. I’m sure I’ll think of others in a few minutes, but for now, I’ll leave with a “least favorite”: Chopin’s piano concerti. I found myself wondering what the orchestra was there for after the first movement opening tutti in both pieces, even with superb soloists and orchestras. Not something I will ever program by choice, and hopefully never by necessity.

    Comment by Mikko Utevsky — October 2, 2012 @ 12:29 am

    • Hi Mikko,
      All fine and perceptive comments.
      I heard the Berlioz. You guys did a fine job in a long an difficult piece. Also with the Messiaen and Berg. Congrats!
      You name all great warhorses.
      As for the two Chopin concertos, they are what they are — beautiful works that are more pianistic than orchestral but filled with gorgeous harmonies and melodies all the same. Think of them as bel canto opera, with those swirls of piano notes. These are really arias for piano.
      But there is a case to be made for the minimal orchestration — a case I gear none other than pianist Emanuel Ax make. And he plays them most convincingly.
      If you listen with the heart and not the head, they make more sense are sheer loveliness.
      I also love the big Beethoven symphonies and would add No. 3 “The Eroica.
      Thanks for reading and replying with such thoughtfulness.
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — October 2, 2012 @ 9:20 am

      • Daniel Del Pino, a regular visitor to Farley’s recital series, has made a string quartet and piano version of the two Chopin concerti. Heard them both last time he was here. Nice…didn’t miss anything, and the piano was as up-front as it ought to be.

        Comment by Michael BB — October 2, 2012 @ 10:16 am

  3. […] Classical music: What are your favorite warhorses? The Ear says warhorses need defending and perform… ( […]

    Pingback by Today’s Birthday: VLADIMIR SAMOYLOVICH HOROWITZ (1903) – Rachmaninoff 3rd Concerto Mehta NYPO 1978 | euzicasa — October 1, 2012 @ 12:01 pm

  4. Brahms’ First Symphony, Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe” Suites, Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto in G major, later Mozart symphonies, “Hafner,” “Jupiter,” etc. Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” in C# minor, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, perhaps the Biggest Stallion of al the WarHorses. I dig these …

    I think that lesser-known/heard works that pop out on schedules from time to time are as essential to balanced listening and programming as the favorites. One needs to know if one’s tastes are changing, if the music of the modern era is really as discomfiting as we think, and if the range of the master composers was as wider, or not quite as broad, as we may have been taught to believe.

    Chopin’s two concerti are not my favs, but they get played a lot. Rachmaninoff’s concerti are overlong, and ramble considerably. The in-between symphonies of Beethoven, espcially the 7th, are really gems.

    So, the Warhorse is not an endangered species, but the cadet branches of the repertoire family have their place, deserve their due, and perform an important role, that of putting the masterpieces in context.


    Comment by Michael BB — September 30, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    • Hi Michael,
      You cite a lot of great pieces and great music that are favorites of both the public and the professional performers.
      And I agree about the need to hear relatively neglected repertoire.
      But one should hear it fairly, and not overpraise simply because it because it has been underperformed. The reasons you give are far better reasons.
      As always, thank you for reading and replying thoughtfully and insightfully in detail.
      he Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 30, 2012 @ 11:07 am

  5. Favorite warhorses: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Toccata from Widor’s 5th Organ Symphony. Charles Ives’s “America”. “La Traviata”. Duet from “The Pearl Fishers”. The Overture to “Candide”. I could go on!

    But then again, one person’s warhorse is another’s winged stallion. And .. is a warhorse different from a guilty pleasure? Is the latter when you know it really isn’t that good a piece of music — the audio equivalent of Richard Gere movies? I’d also like to see what are people’s least favorite pieces of music …

    Comment by AnnB. — September 30, 2012 @ 7:03 am

    • Hi Ann,
      You have excellent choices for “warhorses.”
      They all make the little hairs on my neck stand up! And they didn’t require multiple listenings to appreciate. First time and … bam .. the magic was there.
      And yes, I too think one’s person’s warhorses are another person’s — actually, many people’s — masterpieces.
      And yes, I too would like to know readers LEAST favorite works and composers as well as their MOST favorite ones.
      A lot of Schoenberg fits in the least favorite category for me.
      And a lot of contemporary classical music seems headed there.
      As always, thanks for reading and replying so informatively and astutely.
      The Ear

      Comment by welltemperedear — September 30, 2012 @ 10:06 am

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