“Why does the world need a Piano Day? For many reasons,” says Nils Frahm. “But mostly it doesn’t hurt to celebrate the piano and everything around it: performers, composers, piano builders, tuners, movers and most important, the listener.”
Given the instrument’s ubiquity in modern and classical music, it’s a wonder the Berlin-based pianist and composer was the first to set aside a day – the 88th of each year – to celebrate the piano, when he did so only last year. We're happy to join the piano party, so we’ve decided to put together some of our favourite pieces of piano music for testing your system. Or hey, just listening.
We've supplied YouTube links so you can get the idea, reader Andy Lyon has kindly built this Spotify playlist, there's a Tidal playlist here, and there are links to buy the music should you be smitten. Enjoy...
1. Nils Frahm – Says
It makes sense to begin with the musician responsible for this day in the first place. Nils Frahm’s soundscapes, architected using an often-unconventional fusion of modern classical and electronic music, are a litmus test for frequency range, space and timing, but most pertinently for how a system knits together electronic and acoustic instruments.
2. Sergei Rachmaninov – Concerto No2 in C Minor
You’ll likely have seen these next two coming. The juxtaposition of gushing romanticism and imposing march-like phrases in Sergei Rachmaninov’s Concerto No2 in C# Minor are enough to get any system on its toes. While its beauty will typically shine through regardless, only a system with impeccable sense of dynamics and organisation will really do it justice.
3. Frédéric Chopin – Scherzo No2 in B-flat Minor
Another composer from whose library we could have chosen by effectively pinning a tail on the donkey, but few pieces use the piano’s full range as well as Frédéric Chopin’s Scherzo No2 in B-flat Minor. A lesson in timing, space and frequency range, it is the Polish composer at possibly his most triumphant.
4. Ólafur Arnalds – Ljósi∂
A label-mate and collaborator of Frahm’s, Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds’s ambient, minimalist piano tracks are undeniably enchanting. Tracks such as Ljósi∂ are a test for dynamics, organisation and detail; see how well your system can dig out those stereo-delayed oscillations (steady) behind the main melody.
5. Thelonious Monk – Blue Monk
Thelonious Monk’s improvisational styling really requires a hi-fi with a superior understanding of rhythm and dynamics. With a track such as this, organisation is also key to tying in the saxophone, bass and drum kit; if you don’t feel it, it ain’t right.
More after the break
6. Dr John – Iko Iko
New Orleans blues legend Dr John is another case whereby if you’re not at least tapping your feet, there’s something innately wrong with your kit. It’s that same concoction of dynamics and rhythm that give tracks such as Iko Iko its infectious charm.
7. Radiohead – Sit Down, Stand Up (Snakes & Ladders)
This may not be the first Radiohead track that comes to mind when you think of piano test tracks, but it can be the ruin of a system without an impeccable sense of timing or organisation. Let your kit dig the detail out of that treated piano before those jungle-style polyrhythms are unleashed after around three minutes, hopefully not just sounding like a mess, then test the agility of the low end with Colin Greenwood’s sprinting bass guitar line.
8. David Bowie – Lady Grinning Soul
Mike Garson’s performance on this, the final track on David Bowie’s 1973 album Aladdin Sane, is nothing short of masterful. The piano’s interaction with other instruments in the arrangement are a test of detail and organisation, as much as Bowie’s own expansive vocal is for dynamic range.
9. LCD Soundsystem – All My Friends
It’s two chords, all the way through; your system can handle that, can’t it? This LCD Soundsystem gem is another from the school whereby if you’re still sat in your seat by the song’s conclusion, you need to begin asking questions about timing, organisation and dynamics.
10. Ludovico Einaudi – Night
The inclusion of some of Ludovico Einaudi’s minimalist masterpieces in Shane Meadows’s seminal film This Is England opened up the Italian composer’s music to a whole new audience, but later works have seen him experiment more with electronic instruments as well. There are pulses in this track that will really dig deep into your system’s frequency range.
11. Lou Reed – Satellite Of Love
Another Bowie-infused offering, and you’ll need a rich treble to properly render his eye-wateringly high harmonies toward the end of this Lou Reed treasure. We’re also fans of using live recordings, and can heartily recommend Morrissey’s cover of this song released as a tribute following Reed’s death in 2013.
12. Sigur Rós – Sæglópur
For sheer scale, few modern arrangements propose a greater test of your system’s capabilities than those of Sigur Rós. Incidentally, it can be a great test for your budget Bluetooth speakers, which often attempt to sound bigger than they are; if you can keep your head above water with this track, you’ll probably do just about okay with anything.
13. Tom Waits – The Piano Has Been Drinking
There are few voices so easily recognisable as Tom Waits’s, but for us that means only that it deserves adequate representation. We want bags of detail, a well-supported middle and a dynamic range that can really go to town on the expression in that iconic rasp in this track.
14. Mogwai – I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead
When we spoke to Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai a few weeks ago, he heralded the value of music in which there’s so much noise it can be difficult to know what’s going on. In hi-fi terms, those dense textures can often mean greater need for detail, dynamics and organisation, allowing you to become fully immersed in the soundscape without being confused as to what’s going on.
15. R.E.M. – Nightswimming
Effectively a duet between Mike Mills on piano and Michael Stipe singing, there are fewer more beautiful or more uplifting songs in R.E.M.’s immense repertoire. An open, spacious and expressive soundstage is imperative to doing it justice.
Something you think we've missed? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter!