These piano works have become my refuge – a safe place to retreat to when life gets difficult. I take them with me wherever I go, whether it’s to my local shop or travelling to the other side of the world.
The most relaxing pieces of piano music
Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Variation 18
Rachmaninov has created a wonderful journey piece based on a set of variations on Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, originally written for violin. When you listen closely, you hear how Rachmaninov very cleverly inverts the melody theme. In other words, the A minor Paganini theme is literally played ‘upside down’ in D♭ major. Rachmaninov himself recognised the appeal of this variation, saying ‘This one is for my agent!’. The best way to experience this piece is to sit back, close your eyes and allow it to pull gently on your heart strings.
Stephen Hough (piano), Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton
We included this in our round-up of the best recordings of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5: II. Adagio un poco mosso
This piece is more commonly known as the Emperor Concerto, and for good reason. Beethoven perfectly captured the feeling of a momentous royal occasion: this movement is steeped in melodic beauty, to be played with grace and delicate control.
Krystian Zimerman (piano), London Symphony Orchestra/Simon Rattle
Satie: Gymnopédie No. 1
One of three wonderful pieces first published in Paris in 1888, Satie claimed that his Gymnopédies were inspired by reading Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô. The novel’s themes of lust, freedom and death make it a great source of material for the composer. Part of what makes this particular Gymnopédie really sing for me is its simplicity.
Noriko Ogawa (piano)
Eydís Evensen: Bylur
Eydís Evensen’s Icelandic roots have had a profound impact on her music. She is a classically trained pianist and a post-classical composer. The natural world that surrounded her in Iceland continues to be at the heart of her music to this day. During grey days in London, this sense of being immersed in natural beauty is much needed! Evensen creates mournful, sophisticated, melancholic arrangements that have a notable beauty and are driven by her emotions. She represents moments of her life through the music: much like a snowstorm, there are ups and downs, chaos and calm.
Max Richter: The Departure
It would be hard not to mention Max Richter when you’re thinking about soothing piano works. Departure is such a powerful theme: it’s one that can really transport you to another place emotionally, almost within an instant. For me, Max Richter’s The Departure is one of the most uplifting forms of melancholy created in recent years, capturing both dark and light with such care and precision.