“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 a couple of years ago. 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.
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. Claude Debussy – Clair de lune
Few pieces have been interpreted by so many pianists as this, Debussy's most famous work, but Alexandre Tharaud's take - released as a video and digital single as part of this month's centenary celebrations – might be the first to incorporate acrobatics. "Artists exploring ideas together become like childhood friends," says Yoann Bourgeois, choreographer and star of the video. There is a dancing, lilting movement in Tharaud's performance, undoubtedly affected by this duet of art forms.
4. Kiasmos – Looped
A label-mate and collaborator of Frahm’s, Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Ólafur Arnalds’s ambient, minimalist piano tracks are undeniably enchanting – his score for Broadchurch even earned him a BAFTA. But it's his work with Faroese electronic artist Janus Rasmussen as experimental techno outfit Kiasmos we're focussing on here. With each instrument recorded acoustically before being treated or looped, there is as much textural detail for your system to dig out as there are pulsing rhythms for it to keep in time.
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.
6. Dr John – Iko Iko
New Orleans blues legend Dr John is another of those artists whereby if you’re not at least tapping your feet, there’s something innately wrong with your kit. It’s the cocktail 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 that jungle-style polyrhythm is 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 sitting 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. The Tallest Man On Earth – There's No Leaving Now
One of those tracks that proves there is more to capturing the piano's magnificence on record than mere clarity. The title track from Kristian Matsson's third album as The Tallest Man On Earth, There's No Leaving Now is not quite lo-fi, but deserves a system willing to shine a light on its grainy, honest production. "I wanted a sound that had that brittle quality," Matsson said, "that feeling that it might just fall apart."
14. Mogwai – I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead
When we spoke to Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai 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!