Playing the piano is a form of art that has been around for a long time, but few of us know what makes it truly special or what it means to practice it until mastery.
Although now there are many options available on the market, such as digital pianos, if you want to become a pianist yourself or you’ve noticed that your kid shows particular skills in this area, then read the article below to find some inspiration.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s style is considered by many as contradictory to the time in which he lived. This is because he sought to maintain the romanticism of the 19th century into the 20th. He was known for his clean finger technique, which allowed him to maintain clarity in the knottiest passages.
His style was influenced by famous Russian composers, especially when considering his early works, but during the later parts of his career, he started expressing his own style which consisted of strong orchestral nuances and melodicism.
Being a prodigy he was a musician at the age of 4, and he already had composed a number of orchestral and piano pieces by the time he finished the conservatory in Moscow.
The great musician was known for combining elements of romanticism with the more modern-day technical aspects of a piece. This turned him into one of the best pianists of his day. His daring personality and willingness to take risks in his playing made his audiences fall in love with his music.
Being a great composer, he was also considered the best Chopin interpreter, and with a career that expanded over 8 decades, it is clear why he can be seen as one of the best musicians of the 20th century. He was fluent in 8 languages and he had an impressive memory, being capable of keeping most notes of the songs he played in his mind and playing them by memory afterward.
He had excellent mental abilities, saying that he was able to create and perform entire symphonies in his mind while having breakfast.
Born in Romania into a Jewish family, Haskil stood out as a remarkable natural talent from a young age. She was able to reproduce Mozart and Beethoven as a child before she had taken any music lessons. Due to her poor health and the WWII, her international career was delayed, but she made a name for herself with her performances of Mozart.
Highly regarded as a chamber musician she collaborated with a number of important composers of her time. She was a friend of Charlie Chaplin, who saw her as an exquisite artist with an extraordinary technique. Even Pope Francis mentioned her as one of his favorite musicians, especially when she played Mozart.
Richter is one of those musicians that showed a great fidelity to the composer’s interpretations, considering himself more of an executant. He held his performance in such high standards that, after realizing he had been playing a wrong note in Bach’s Italian Concerto for some time, he had a disclaimer printed on a CD containing a recording of the piece.
He was also known for his vast repertoire and his impressive technique that allowed him to play a vast majority of compositions to perfection. Rising to fame in Russia, Eastern Europe, and China, he continued his career touring across the whole world, especially in the USA in the 1960s.
With a lengthy career that influenced the world of pianists, Horowitz impressed audiences with his extraordinary technical abilities and his interpretations. Known for his ability to alter aspects of works by past and present composers gained him the admiration of composers and fellow pianists, although some music critics did not necessarily agree.
He was not only a great player but also a great teacher. Tutoring students like Nico Kaufmann, Byron Janis, and Gary Graffman, he was a tough teacher and he only accepted to work with those that he believed had a future in the industry.
Despite being married he came to the conclusion that he was homosexual and he tried to “treat this illness” (as those times believed of it) by taking medications, which didn’t work, of course.
Glenn Gould is still one of the most fascinating and inspiring pianists to this day. His unique way of playing had the power to change the way the world listened to the works of Bach.
The musician gained recognition as a creator, being considered much more than an interpreter. Each time he played a piece, it had a different conception, architecture, and creative approach.
He loved playing Bach and Beethoven, but he disliked most of the Romantic composers such as Chopin or Liszt. However, he didn’t limit himself to just those two composers, as he also had recordings of him playing Mozart, Brahms, or Haydn. Late-romantic and modernist composers also made their way into his repertoire.
Consistently showing the ability to merge an articulate and intelligent playing style with powerful emotion conveyed, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s repertoire is broad, including renowned names such as Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt, Haydn, or Scriabin.
Still alive today, he can be considered one of the best pianists playing in the 21st century. In addition to being an excellent performer, he is also a skilled conductor. Something a bit unusual for a piano interpreter, he has won 5 Grammy Awards for his music.
What Martha Argerich brought to the world of music was a passionate playing style, as well as technical ability. She is widely recognized as one of the greatest pianists of the latter half of the 20th century, winning acclaim for her Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff recordings.
Playing the piano from the age of 3, she gave her first concert at the age of 8 and impressed the audience. Seen as the media as a lonely performer, she often liked to play solo pieces. Diagnosed with cancer in 1990 she has battled the disease since then and managed to eventually win the battle, fortunately.
Although he managed to fairly avoid the recording studio, Sokolov is known for his brilliant technique. He came to international prominence in the 1980s and further released CDs, mainly of live performances, featuring his wide repertoire. This includes Beethoven, Bach, and Chopin, among many others.
Being of Russian origins, he canceled tours in the United Kingdom because of the legislation there that required foreigners to provide fingerprints and eye prints. He considered these to be forms of oppression and didn’t attempt to tour the UK again.
He credits Emil Gilels as his biggest influencer, but he was also inspired by Rachmaninoff, Sofronitsky, and Glenn Gould. He has recently reduced the number of his concerto performances because he thinks there are so many pieces written for the piano and so little time to play them all.
Born in Austria, Schnabel specialized in core German composers and made the first complete recording of the Beethoven sonatas. He was committed to plumbing the intellectual and spiritual depths of a work, while avoiding displays of technical bravura. He was known for his command of structure and form which, of course, his peers could not match.
His affinity for Beethoven brought him to a rare confluence between interpreter and composer, similar to Glenn Gould’s relationship with the music of J. S. Bach. Schnabel’s playing comes very near to the composers’ own creative impulses, bringing the music close to that spark of genius which makes it a masterpiece.
Described by music critics as “the man who invented Beethoven” he was renowned for his performances over the composer’s pieces. He was not only a great player but also an excellent composer, and although he focused a lot on pieces from Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, and other such composers, his compositions were often atonal, meaning that they lacked a tonal key.
This French-born pianist is known for his commitment to contemporary music. He also recorded the first two books of Ligeti’s piano études. With a special attention paid to every note and every sound, Pierre-Laurent Aimard embraces all good music regardless of its era.
For some an example of tolerance and acceptance when it comes to music, he is the type of musician that encourages new generations to make music as well. Some describe him as a player of the utmost integrity, who never plays a note without a reason.
Born in 1957 he is one of the younger pianists on this list. That is probably a reason why he is in love with contemporary music and tends to play that more than classical music. He did not limit himself to that, however, as he also recorded the five Beethoven piano concertos.
Furthermore, he has recently got involved with conducting as well, but he wouldn’t describe himself as a talented conductor. Instead, he says he is a musician that likes to play in an ensemble and loves to hear the whole music.
The German pianist focused on the classics of German music and played concerts well into his eighties. Bringing rhythmic inventiveness into his interpretations, he found a way to bring out the lyricism, charm, and spontaneity in music, particularly when it came to more intimate passages.
Wilhelm Kempff managed to create sublime musical moments that transported audiences to magical realms, and his special personality and personal touch definitely were a key element in achieving this.
Thanks to his achievements he is still considered one of the greatest interpreters of German music, especially amongst those players that lived in the 20th century. He was not only a great performer but also a skilled teacher, taking control over Stuttgart College of Music. Kempff also created courses for others in other parts of Germany and in Italy.
Although not known especially for this skill, he also liked to compose a bit, and he wrote music for all the genres that he usually performed.
Another example of a successful Austrian pianist, Alfred Brendel is a teacher now based in London. He has recorded four complete sets of the Beethoven sonatas and is known for the rigorous adherence to the score without sounding dry or academic. He also has a knack for finding unexpected moments of humor, particularly in Classical repertoire.
Making use of his sense of humor and the ability to connect to people through various arts, he also became a poet and author. His writings often consist of essays about music and instruments, but he also likes poems, which are again based on the idea of musicality.
Still alive today, he is not performing live anymore since 2007, but he still writes and plays although not for audiences.
A well-known French pianist and professor at the Conservatoire de Paris, the musician was referred to as a “poet of the piano”, given his mastery of the lyrical works of Chopin, Debussy, and Schumann.
He produced landmark recordings, while his highly personal and subjective style favors intuition and feeling over precise technique, resulting in performances of transcendental musicality.
Being such a connoisseur of the works of Chopin, Schumann, or Debussy, he contributed to the world of music by producing printed materials for the piano works of the 3 of them. In these works, he discussed some technical issues that might appear when playing their piano music, and also gives his impression on how to interpret them.
This Odessa-born pianist moved to Moscow in 1935 and became, along with Richter, one of the leading Soviet pianists of his day. Together with violinist David Oistrakh, they were among the first Soviet musicians allowed to sustain concerts in the West.
He is known for the “golden” sound, an ability to execute the most taxing passages without compromising his tone or depth of feeling.
Being one of the biggest influencing talents in the world of thy piano, some famous other players like Sokolov credit him for his talent. His repertoire was a vast one and it ranged from baroque music to late romantic and composers of the 20th century.
During the later parts of his life, he had issues with his heart and he suffered a heart attack once and having to battle with declining health afterward.
Could Liszt have been the greatest pianist of all time?
While all the names displayed in this article have a lot of proof in regards to their virtuosity since we can always listen to recordings of their performances, not the same thing can be said about Franz Liszt. A highly accomplished composer, known for his impact and representation of the Romantic era, during his time, Liszt enjoyed a lot of recognition not only for his creations but also for his performance as a pianist.
- Accurate like a metronome
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to call Liszt the best pianist of his time, but what would have been his place among the famous names mentioned in this article? Friends with other great pianists such as Frédéric Chopin, Liszt was known as a benefactor and promoter or other great names that shaped up the classical music landscape during his lifetime.
Yet, as mentioned earlier, since it’s impossible for us, today, to listen to Liszt perform, all we have is what history tells us. There are multiple accounts from other great pianists that refer to his performing style. For instance, Carl Czerny, a Czech pianist and Liszt’s piano teacher, described him as a natural and praised his extraordinary precision and elegance of execution of the most complicated pieces, some composed by him.
It appears that Liszt was a child prodigy and that his father insisted that he practiced with the help of a metronome. Since keeping absolute tempo is a feat of strength for any pianist, it is quite clear how that sort of discipline might have helped Liszt improve his technique to the point that he achieved perfection. Using piano concerto works created by Hummel, as well as some of Czerny’s creations, he used to play the piano until he got the compositions down to the last note.
- Unique performing style and Lisztomania
While the precision of his style might be tributary to Liszt’s father’s penchant for perfect discipline, it was after his death that Liszt would start to develop a particular style. That could have been what, ultimately, brought him the recognition and fame he is known for to this day, and also the root of what later transformed into a phenomenon called Lisztomania.
Witnesses of his performances must have been many since Liszt was also a touring virtuoso, but written accounts of how he must have sounded like when playing are not as many. As the mother of one of his pupils describes his playing style in 1832, he was capable of delivering the music he played with maximum accuracy, while managing to transmit and transfer the feelings inspired by it in a way no one had done it before him.
That was the force of the impact he had on his listeners, and that is why we should not be so surprised that he inspired the phenomenon coined after his name when he toured Europe in the 1840s. Long before Beatles or Elvis Presley would make hordes of fans reach the borders of hysteria during their stage appearances, a piano concerto performed by Liszt was capable of triggering the same strong emotions in those who came to see him play the piano.
It also seems that Liszt was an excellent performer and knew how to fire up his audience. Accounts from newspapers of the time also indicate that his brilliant performances had an accent on harmony, and obtaining sounds so mellow like they had never been played before.
- A few arguments in his favor
It is quite evident that classical music, as a whole, would not be the same without Liszt and his compositions. However, there are still voices that express a certain doubt regarding his abilities as a pianist. In any piano competition today, participants must put their all into impressing the jurors. Still, there is no such thing that could help us listen to Liszt and the way he played his favorite instrument.
One argument that no one can ignore is the impressive body of work Liszt left behind. All the great pianists we listen to today would not be able to prove their virtuosity without performing Liszt’s sophisticated compositions. It is also evident that it is not up to any pianist in training to achieve perfection when performing his compositions.
The piano pieces he composed are considered to this day to be extremely difficult. Could he have been capable of producing such music without being able to execute it, as well? A simple look at a music sheet of a Liszt composition could tell even someone without piano training that such arrangements are not for the weak.
For experts, it is also quite evident that Liszt created his compositions while bearing in mind the position of the hands of the keys. Seeing how he was also a celebrated teacher, it would seem unlikely that he would have composed something he couldn’t have played himself.
Over the years, Liszt must have developed an impressive technique while performing his own compositions, as well as others’. Also, another strong reason to believe that he was the pianist capable of a solo recital that would bring the audience to its feet, screaming hysterically as if at a rock concert in the 20th century, is that he transformed the works of others to suit his style.
These transcriptions are considered some of the most challenging piano pieces all great pianists aspire to execute as close to perfection as possible. How could he have imagined all those modifications without being able to bring them to life?
As mentioned earlier, while there are no recordings of him playing the piano, there are multiple accounts of reviews of his performances. It appears that everyone who listened to him was so impressed with what he could do in front of a piano, that there are almost no negative reviews. Seeing how other great pianists of the era must have felt the sting of some journalist’s sharp tip of the pencil, that in itself, is an accomplishment we cannot ignore.
Let’s not forget that Liszt was also an excellent tutor, and you can read accounts on his activity today. His pupils often talked or wrote about the incredible subtleties they learned from their teacher. Seeing how he often took place in front of the piano to demonstrate to his students what he wanted to hear, we can only imagine the reverence and admiration he must have inspired them.
Lastly, there are clearly so many studies of famous piano works that Liszt came up with, that it’s safe to say that he was the one to revolutionize the way a piano concerto should sound like. Without his innovations, techniques, and transcriptions, the way piano is played today might have been entirely different.
In the end, it may be hard to say that Liszt is the best pianist of all time since no one alive could vouch for his virtuosity. However, in the light of his accomplishments and the accounts from the time he lived in, it is also just as valid to celebrate him for his contribution to the instrument.
Other honorable mentions
While Liszt deserved to be talked about separately, seeing his fame and also the arduous debate surrounding his abilities as a pianist, it is now time to refer to those names we couldn’t include in the shortlist presented above. They are incredible performers, and the chances are they could take anyone in a piano competition, as long as they don’t go against the famous names mentioned earlier.
- Constance Keene
Constance Keene is an American pianist, a native of New York, mainly known for the execution of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Preludes in 1964. Enjoying a career that spanned over almost her entire life, she was also an incredible teacher. One of the most resounding names among her pupils is Arthur Rubinstein. From 1943, when she won a prestigious piano competition, and throughout her life, she made quite an impression on anyone who listened to her performances.
- George Gershwin
Another accomplished American pianist who was also a great composer, George Gershwin, deserves to be mentioned here. Just like Constance Keene, he was born in Brooklyn, New York, a place that seems to have given the country many important artists. While not a child prodigy like other names on our list, he would get the bug at the age of 10, when he listened to one of his friends playing the violin.
- Duke Ellington
Not only classical music should have its representatives among the honorable mentions in this section. Just as accomplished as a pianist as the assiduous admirers of the classical genre, Duke Ellington would remain in our history as a virtuoso of the instrument, just as he was an admirable composer of jazz music.
While he might not have gathered accolades by winning a piano competition or two, he deserves to be admired for his body of work just the same. Duke Ellington is another American pianist worthy of being considered among these famous names.
- Leif Ove Andsnes
Among the contemporary pianists that must be included on our list, this Norwegian virtuoso deserves a place. The piano concerto pieces composed by Beethoven, inspired him to make a recording of all five of them, together with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Andsnes is an excellent example of how classical music continues to be admired and played today.
- Claudio Arrau
Arrau is a great example of a pianist who comes from a corner of the planet that may not be well known for giving such virtuosos to the world, at least not to the extent of a place like New York, for instance. This Chilean pianist never shied away from performing some of the most challenging pieces ever composed by titans such as Liszt, Chopin, and Schubert, among many.
Like Liszt in his time, Arrau developed his own unique sound that managed to break from the mold many other performers of the instrument might abide by. The full-bodied, yet disembodied timbre of his performance still manages to impress today, years after his passing away.
- Radu Lupu
Another great name of our current times, Radu Lupu, is a Romanian pianist who had the chance to be tutored by the same teacher who taught piano to famous names like Dinu Lipatti and Heinrich Neuhaus. The latter also taught piano to Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, names you can find in our selection above.
No piano competition seems to have been a stranger to Radu Lupu, and he won numerous accolades that propelled him into the world of famous pianists. A child prodigy as he learned how to play the instrument at the age of six, he would soon gain international fame. Although he played in New York, at Carnegie Hall, in 1967, he preferred to continue his studies in Moscow.
- Myra Hess
One of the names that will be forever entwined with the history of the Second World War is, undoubtedly, Myra Hess. Her early accomplishments, such as earning a scholarship at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music when he was just 12 years old, or performing with the famous conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, somewhat pale in comparison with what she succeeded to attain during the unfortunate period of the Second World War.
During a time when London was in lockdown in fear of the Nazi bombardments, and all the music venues had to be close, she came up with the idea of organizing lunchtime concerts. She gave not just one solo recital, but no fewer than 150, an accomplishment for which she was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by King George VI.
- Stephen Hough
Both a British and Australian pianist, Stephen Hough, is one of those artists who aim at completeness in their work. Many critics consider them to be capable of playing anything, although he is mostly known for his flawless executions of Ravel and Massenet. A winner of many accolades, of which the Gramophone Record of the Year in 2001 for recording the Saint-Saëns concertos may be the best known, Hough is a true virtuoso of the instrument.
Up till now, he recorded no fewer than 60 CDs, and it appears that no composer, no matter how difficult, can scare him. From Rachmaninoff to Hummel, he has tried and performed everything beautifully.
- Lang Lang
One of the youngest pianists to deserve a place in an informal hall of fame celebrating this instrument, Lang Lang is the presence needed for inspiring the new generations of piano players. Born in 1982, in the 1990s, he was already touring and performing in front of large audiences.
He took his first piano lessons at the young age of three, and from that moment forward, his dedication to the instrument would only bring him recognition and fame. What certainly makes Lang Lang such an inspiration to young Chinese pianists and not only is, besides his incredible talent, his stage performance. Managing to combine flawless execution with a superstar personality, he is definitely here to write history.
- John Ogdon
A Nottinghamshire native, John Ogdon would grow up to be one of the influential names of the 20th century, in the field of piano performance. A student at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, he would have the opportunity to meet with other fellow pianists and create a group called New Music Manchester.
He studied with many tutors, including famous names, like Dame Myra Hess, also included in this list of honorable mentions. One of his most impressive skills was his ability to memorize large pieces of music and reproduce them at will. He was also an industrious composer, with 200 compositions under his belt, of which 2 were complete operas.
- Murray Perahia
This highly accomplished pianist deserves a place on this list not only because of his impeccable technique and virtuosity. Perahia is an excellent example of what strength of will should be all about. In 1990, he suffered a hand injury that would later lead to complications, such as a bone abnormality that kept him away from his favorite instrument for many years.
Despite all his health issues, Perahia has managed to follow his career, even if he was often forced to cancel concerts due to them. Through all these, he soldiered on, and today, his interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is considered to be among the most beautiful ever heard.
- Maria Joao Pires
A lover of music from an early age, the Portuguese born would grow up to become one of the most famous pianists of our time. She won many competitions and prizes, and by the age of 26, she would climb the ladder of international fame; it happened in 1970 when she won the Beethoven Bicentennial Competition in Brussels.
Accomplished both as a solo and chamber music performer, today, the famous pianist says that she still doesn’t plan to retire. However, during recent years, she had to reduce the number of public appearances. Maria Joao Pires is a huge fan of Mozart, so she is best known for the beautiful renditions of his sonatas.