Song-inspired piano music – 10 of our favourites (and a movie-inspired 11th)

Many of us love songs and also love the piano, and we often think of songs and the piano music inspired by songs ….

And as the summer break is coming to an end and as we are all back at our work place trying to remember what “working” requires or make a new season’s push….

So we have put together 10 of our favourite piano transcriptions of songs or piano works inspired by songs.

  1. Well, of course there is Liszt’s piano versions of Schubert’s songs, and this is Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade (D.118) (“maiden at the spinning wheel”) with some Lisztian embellishments, an atmospheric rendition by Lazar Berman that was recorded live.  No wonder Liszt biographer Alan Walker called these piano transcriptions “art that conceals art“.
  2. Liszt on Isolde’s Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (or the melancholic love story of all times?) in a rare recording (made in 1989 and his last) by Horowitz who did much transcriptions himself.
  3. Liszt on perhaps the most recognizable of Chopin’s Polish songs, “A maiden’s wish” (Życzenie) from his Polish Songs, performed with verve by Gyorgy Cziffra.
  4. Perhaps slightly less well-known, Liszt made a piano transcription of the Lachrymosa in the Mozart Requiem, one of Mozart’s most treasured choral works and adored by Liszt.  This is the Lisztian Lachrymosa though Liszt wasn’t the only one who was inspired by Mozart’s Lachrymosa, here is his rival Thalberg’s version which is contrasts also with the version played by the incomparable Maria Yudina, that of Saltykov.
  5. Liszt on Mozart and Allegri: Amazingly, Liszt crafted a piano piece based on Mozart’s Ave Verum and Allegri’s Miserere, numbered S.461 (with an organ version and later also orchestrated too).  This piece is not well-known but it is stunning and dramatic – so we attach a link to the score (for non-commercial use only) and a clip here (Leslie Howard, in his project to record all of Liszt’s works, did include this piece in the nearly 100-CD collection).
  6. Liszt wasn’t the only significant piano composer who was also a significant lieder writer as well as a transcriber of his own songs – the Russian Sergey Rachmaninoff, like Liszt, wrote some exquisite piano transcriptions of his songs. One of these is “Lilacs” from his “Twelve Songs”, Op.21: and we delighted in Ovchinikov’s silky and atmospheric interpretation.
  7. Well, Rachmaninoff loved song melodies so much he also made piano transcriptions of some of Tchaikovsky’s most lovely, melancholic songs. Here is one of the most delightful and a masterful one on Tchaikovsky’s “Cradle song” – played by the Rach-man himselftruly a “song without word” and also having the distinction of being Rachmaninoff’s last work. (Tchaikovsky himself made a piano version of his own song but it has become less popular than the Rachmaninoff piano version!).
  8. Liszt made piano transcriptions of the works (not just songs) of more than 100 other composers; but he also composed piano pieces based on his own songs, including this German song based on Goethe’s memorable poem, Der du von dem Himmel bist (“You who are from heaven”).
  9. Last but not least, and high on our list of favourites, is the dreamy piece of piano music Liszt composed on Schumann’s Widmung – there are a few moving versions but here’s the one played by Martha Argerich recently in London for encore.
  10. Our final choice: a most beautiful Bach (keyboard) transcription on an oboe theme by his contemporary, the Venetian Alessandro Marcello, and French pianist Anne Quffelec’s sublime rendering.  (We know, it didn’t strictly qualify as a song with lyrics but …)

And yes, OK, for all your movie buffs out there, we’ll tack on a tied 10th – so, last but not least – from the “Superman and Jane movie” (oh, the official name is the “Somewhere in Time” movie), yes, that one, that is from a violin theme (and so not exactly qualify as a song with lyrics but we’ve already broken that rule slightly in our final choice), and not only that there is Yuja Wang’s full-concert and always-energetic performance of Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Paganini, the famous 18th variation (that appear in the movie) at 15:20 minute.

We hope you get as much joy out of this as we had in putting this together and sharing it.  We have at least a few more “10 favourite” song transcriptions, this was only to kick this off!  Send us your thoughts and comments.


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