My favorite piano-related classical CD's are listed below. Click on the CD images to access Amazon to hear selections (I am not an Amazon affiliate, nor do I have any association with Amazon). They are sorted by composer, with CDs of various composers listed at the end. My preference for Classical and Romantic Era composers is apparent here.
Leonard Bernstein , New York Philharmonic; Rudolf Serkin, piano; 1997
Stunning recordings from 1962 and 1964 that are explosive in some parts and quietly beautiful in others. The quality of this re-mastering is excellent as well. One of my Lunchtime Sketches is based on this photo of Bernstein, as this CD was the only thing I had available to draw over a hamburger and fries.
Sir Georg Solti, London Symphony Orchestra; Murray Parahia, piano; 1994 Sony
This is amazing music, absolutely beautifully played. This would be my favorite CD of all, except for one thing—the volume changes are dangerous for anyone wearing headphones. I'm serious about this. I keep thinking about forcing a Sony executive to sit down and listen to this soundtrack with headphones—I mean really listen to hear the notes. Then I'd watch him as, for example, Track 2 (a really quiet Fur Elise) drifts away to…the audio explosions (!!) at the start of Track 3 (Symphony No. 3). It can be painful. The Pathetique sonata movement is also incredibly quiet compared to other tracks; fortunately it is followed by the quiet movement of the Emperor Concerto, but God help anyone who decides to skip from there to, say, the 5th Symphony. However, my subconscious is now on the alert and my survival instincts kick in automatically now, so at the appropriate spots I startle and lunge at the controls in time to prevent these kinds of things. Whew!
Van Cliburn, piano; released 1990 (recorded 1966, 1970)
Of all the Pathetique/Les Adieux/Appassionata sonata collections I've heard, I like this older one the best. The sound is superb, despite the age, and the tone quality of Van Cliburn's play is really striking.
Chopin: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2
Zubin Mehta, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; Murray Perahia, piano; 1990 (recorded live in 1989)
I have read that Chopin contemporaries criticized his two piano concertos because the orchestration tended to mainly support the piano. Bravo! This is a wonderful CD, all of it, but the second movement of Piano Concerto No. 1 is gorgeous. I have been learning a solo piano transcription for this movement (which is not really a stretch, since most of it is basically a piano solo anyway, with strings and oboe support). The outbursts of applause at the ends of these concertos give me goosebumps, to tell you the truth. A great CD, made even more remarkable by the fact that I don't like live recordings as a rule because most are ruined by coughing in the audience. (For the record, the absolute worst example I found of music ruined by coughing is Van Cliburn's Tchaikovsky: Concerto No.1 in B-flat Minor Op. 23 & Rachmaninoff: Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op 18 with Kiril Kondrashin/RCA Symphony Orchestra and Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1958.)
Chopin: 19 Nocturnes
Artur Rubinstein, piano; 2000 (recorded 1965 and 1967—digitally re-mastered); RCA Red Seal - BMG 09026 63049-2-RE
The re-mastering of this particular CD set is superb, and Rubinstein excels at Chopin's nocturnes. I also like those by Tamas Vasary, but the sound quality of those recordings suffers somewhat in comparison.
Chopin -- Ballades, Mazurkas, Polonaises
Piotr Anderszewski, piano; 2003 Virgin Classics (EMI)
In general, I really like Chopin's Ballades and Mazurkas, not so much the Polonaises. Anderszewski provides a thoughtful reading, particularly in the slower mazurkas.
Chopin: The Chopin Recital
Andre Watts, piano; 1992 Angel Records
Andre Watt's playing of Chopin's Sonata in B flat minor, Op.35, blows me away. I had no idea that the Funeral March movement, with its heavenly melody lighting up the middle, could be so religiously inspiring. I've heard other performances, and I like this one very much.
John Field: The Complete Nocturnes
Miceal O'Rourke, Piano; 1989
This is the most relaxing CD I have, and I don't mean in a boring way. O'Rourke's precise, caring touch on John Field's beautiful nocturnes (particularly the first nine) are simply a pleasure to listen to. John O'Conor's renderings of these nocturnes are also very good, except for Nocturne #1, for which I can only assume he had a train to catch.
John Field: Piano Concertos No. 2 and No. 3
Sir Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra; John O'Conor, piano; 1994
Piano Concerto No. 2 is my favorite John Field piano concerto. Throughout the first movement, whenever things are about to get serious, the piano flies off into some giddy run of notes that reminds me that music can be written for sheer enjoyment. The slow movements in both concertos are beautiful nocturnes.
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, Piano Concerto in F, An American in Paris
Andre Previn, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Andre Previn, piano; 1990 Philips
Really outstanding performances of exactly the three pieces I want to hear on a Gershwin CD.
Hummel: Piano Concertos Am op. 85 and Bm op. 89
Bryden Thomson, London Chamber Orchestra; Stephen Hough, piano; 1987
These are breathtakingly grand works, brilliantly done. I normally steer clear of virtuoso piano works, but these are magnificent.
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 23 & 27 (Great Concertos Of The Masters)
Alexander Titov, Orchestra "Classic Music Studio," St. Petersburg; Veronika Reznikovskaya, piano; 1994 Sony
I can't quite define it, but this pianist is absolutely fearless—she dares the orchestra to match her timing and doesn't give one inch in these beautiful Mozart concertos. If a piano concerto is a conversation between an orchestra and the piano, then this is a conversation led by the piano. It's $4.98 at Amazon.com for one of my favorites.
Scharwenka: Piano Concerto No 4 and Sauer: Piano Concerto No 1 (The Romantic Piano Concerto - 11)
Lawrence Foster, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Steven Hough, piano, 1995 Hyperion
This CD won the Gramophone Record of the Year and the Gramophone Concerto Award for 1996. The concertos are excellent and refreshing, and the sound is fantastic.
Schubert: Piano Sonatas D.537 and D.664, German Dances D.820 and D.790
Mitsuko Uchida, piano; 2002, Philips Classics
Beautiful playing of Schubert, a favorite composer of mine.
Schubert: Impromptus Op.90 & Op.142
Alfred Brendel, piano; 1989 (recorded in early 70's) Philips
I often find Brendel a bit dry, but he is wonderful here in these Schubert Impromptus.
Nina Postolovskaya, piano; 1995 Sugo Music
This is a very nicely done collection of soft classical piano pieces.
Songs Without Words
Murray Perahia, piano; 1999, Sony
A great CD all around, but Parahia's playing of Schubert's Standchen is drop-dead gorgeous.
Leon Fleisher, piano; 2004 Vanguard Classics
Beautiful music, beautifully played by an artist whose joy in recovering the use of his right hand is evident in every phrase.