10 of the best concertos for unusual instruments

From contrabassoons to harmonicas, we take a look at some of the more unusual concertos to have found their way into the concert hall over the centuries

(GERMANY OUT) Sala, Oskar *18.07.1910-27.02.2002+Komponist, PhysikerMitentwickler des Trautoniums- bei der Arbeit an seinem Mixtut-Trautoniumzum Zwecke der Herstellung vonelektronischer Musik fuer Spielfilme- 1961 (Photo by Bernd Thiele/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Should anyone ever think of sitting down and totting up all the instrumental concertos ever composed, the piano would surely head the table, followed by the violin and then, perhaps, the cello. Those three instruments don’t always take the spotlight, however. A quick look online reveals that nearly every instrument of the orchestra has had at least one concerto written for it, as composers great and small relish getting to grips with various timbres and techniques, plus testing their soloists’ skills to the limit.

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Today’s top composers continue to explore new avenues – Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables, for instance, is a relatively recent addition to the repertoire while Mark Simpson is currently composing an electric guitar concerto. Here, however, we present ten of the more eyebrow-raising concertos to have been performed and recorded over years gone by.

Albrechtsberger Concertos for Jew’s Harp, Mandora and Strings (c1765)

Our survey begins in the 18th century with Johann Albrechtsberger, teacher of Beethoven. The Austrian wrote not just one concerto for Jew’s harp, mandora (a type of lute) and strings but at least seven, four of which survive to this day. Though the twangy sound of the Jew’s harp – produced by vibrating a metal strip (the ‘lamella’) in front of the mouth – can sound a little comical to modern ears, it was an important instrument in Austrian folk music at the time and the best players were highly respected. Albrechtsberger’s concertos were no gimmicks.

Recommended recording:
Fritz Mayr (Jew’s harp); Munich CO/Stadlmair Orfeo C035821A

Hindemith Concerto for Trautonium and String Orchestra (1931)

While studying composition with Hindemith, pianist Oskar Sala was introduced by the composer to Friedrich Trautwein, who was looking for someone to help him develop an early type of synthesizer. The trautonium, named after its inventor, became Sala’s obsession. Its sound, a cross between a flugelhorn and a saxophone, is generated by keys coming into contact at various points along a resistive wire – Sala added expressive capabilities with his mixturtrautonium. Well worth a listen, Hindemith’s concerto has an elegiac movement bookended by two short bursts of lyricism.

Recommended recording:
Oskar Sala (mixturtrautonium); Munich Chamber Orchestra/Hans Stadlmair Erdenklang 81032

Glière Concerto for Coloratura Soprano (1943)

There are countless examples of works being written for soprano and orchestra, so what is it that makes this one a ‘concerto’ rather than just a song? The answer is a lack of words – over two movements, the soprano is required to vocalise, floating serenely above the orchestra in the first, then displaying her agility with leaps and trills in the second. Glière didn’t indicate in the score what vowel sound the soloist should be using nor when to breathe, the idea being that the singer shows off her voice as an instrument as she sees fit. Sublimely beautiful it can be, too.

Recommended recording:
Anu Komsi (soprano); Lahti SO/Sakari Oramo BIS BIS1962

Jolivet Concerto for Ondes Martenot (1947)

André Jolivet’s concerto represents an ambitious showcase for the French electronic instrument, which had been invented just 19 years earlier. By the 1940s, Maurice Martenot’s ‘Musical Waves’ had evolved through several iterations and Jolivet takes full advantage of its improved capabilities. Played by sliding a metal ring along a wire, the ondes Martenot emitted a sound similar to the theremin (patented the same year). It was a more sophisticated beast,  though, and the later addition of a keyboard meant that greater control, colour, expression and performative nuance was possible, resulting in a concerto with a truly cinematic quality.

Recommended recording:
Ginette Martenot (ondes Martenot); Orch du Théâtre National de l’Opéra/Jolivet Profound Classic Archive PCA-013

Villa-Lobos Concerto for Harmonica (1955)

The skills of legendary players Larry Adler, Tommy Reilly and John Sebastian inspired the likes of Vaughan Williams, Milhaud and Malcolm Arnold to write works for the harmonica, an instrument usually associated with popular music. Villa-Lobos’s Concerto, commissioned by Sebastian, packs the charming opening movement with technical challenges including octaves, chords and double notes, while the second movement is a beautiful showcase for the instrument’s powers of expression and range. The vivacious final Allegro shines the spotlight on the player, courtesy of a fiendish cadenza.

Recommended recording:
José Staneck (harmonica); São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/Giancarlo Guerrero  Naxos 8.574018

Piazzolla Concerto for Bandoneón, String Orchestra and Percussion ‘Aconcagua’ (1979)

This concerto was the natural coming together of Piazzolla’s career as a leading bandoneón player and bandleader with his love of composing for larger forces. It is the tango that drives the music forward in first and third movements, though the central Moderato is altogether more contemplative. The ‘Aconcagua’ subtitle comes from the name of the highest mountain in the Andes  – not Piazzolla’s own idea, but added by his publisher, who saw it as the peak of his achievements as a composer. Another concerto, for bandoneón and guitar (above), soon followed.

Recommended recording:
Pablo Mainetti (bandoneón); Orquestra de Cambra Teatre Lliure/Josep Pons Harmonia Mundi HMG501595

Maxwell Davies Piccolo Concerto (1996)

Because of the difficulties of writing for its high frequency and airy, silvery sound quality, the piccolo is rarely thought of as a solo instrument. In Maxwell Davies’s concerto, however, the instrument’s unusual timbre is utilised in the recitative-like solo part, which displays both its lively and melancholic sides. A variable metre, fast-changing moods, ominous orchestral tonality and little recognisable thematic material  mean the listener is made to feel rather uneasy throughout. At just 17 minutes long with no break between movements, this is both a piccolo concerto and, one might say, a concerto piccolo.

Recommended recording:
Stewart McIlwham (piccolo); RPO/M Davies Naxos 8.572363

Tan Dun Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra (1998)

This concerto for multiple instruments almost has to be seen as much as heard. The soloist, moving around throughout the performance, drips, splashes and trickles his or her way through the work, ‘playing’ the surface of water in amplified bowls, bowing the rods of the hand-held ‘waterphone’ and beating the ends of pipes immersed in water, among other things. For the composer Tan Dun, this theatrical work represents his own memories of water, from the natural sounds of rushing rivers to laundry day and childhood play.

Recommended recording:
David Cossin (water percussion); Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Tan Dun Opus Arte OA1014D (DVD)

Kalevi Aho Concerto for Contrabassoon and Orchestra (2005)

Few composers have explored the concerto format with the same gusto as Kalevi Aho – to date, the Finn’s list includes works for, among others, the double bass, bassoon, saxophone, bass clarinet, tuba, trombone, percussion, theremin, timpani, accordion, harp and guitar. For this concerto, he took things a little too far by writing a solo part that went beyond the range of the instrument itself. Thankfully, a new contrabassoon design from the US soon brought the high notes within reach, allowing listeners to enjoy an eerily beautiful work that, as its dedicatee Lewis Lipnick says, shows that ‘the contrabassoon can sing as well as rumble’.

Recommended recording:
Lewis Lipnick (contrabassoon); Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton  BIS BISCD1574

Gabriel Prokofiev Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra (2012)

Gabriel Prokofiev, whose music also spans hip-hop, dance and grime, is no stranger to unusual instruments. This concerto for bass drum brings one of the most prevalent elements of dance music to the fore. Writing for an unpitched instrument means that Prokofiev has to utilise all the different colours and timbres within the bass drum. As well as using different beaters to hit the instrument, the player uses towels to muffle the sound, reminiscent of the thudding bass you hear in club music.

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Recommended recording:
Joby Burgess (bass drum); Ural Philharmonic Orchestra/ Alexey Bogorad Signum SIGCD584