The 10 Greatest Pianists of All Time

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1. Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

Who was he? A pianist and composer born in Russia, who graduated from the Moscow Conservatorium in the same class as composer Alexander Scriabin. Among his compositions is the Piano Concerto No 2, often voted the most popular piece of classical music of all time. He left Russia in 1917, embarking on a career as a touring pianist in order to support himself and his family. He became a US citizen shortly before his death.

What makes him great? An almost superhumanly clean finger technique, which allowed him to maintain clarity even in the knottiest passages. This was partly due to his famously large hands, able to span 12 inches, or a 13th (C1 to A2) on the piano. He also had a beautifully singing tone, likened to that of violinist Fritz Kreisler, permitting him to wring infinite sweetness from a melody.

Leslie Howard on the greatest pianist ever to make a record

“What’s remarkable about Rachmaninov’s playing is how honest it is. Nothing gets between his playing and his idea of why the piece of music was worth recording. His playing is never cluttered, it’s never fussy and there’s a complete absence of cheap tricks – quite unusual for the time he was recording. I think he’s the greatest pianist of his age and I’m sure he’s the best pianist who ever made a record.

"Of course, his technique is extraordinary, but the gift of all good technique is that you’re not aware of it when you’re listening to it. If you hear him play Si oiseau j’étais by Henselt, for instance, it sounds like the most charming salon piece. But if you’ve ever sat down to play it, you’ll know perfectly well it’s an absolute terror. 

"Rachmaninov also has a way of dealing with rhythm which makes him instantly recognisable. Sometimes he does it by playing a rhythm that’s not exactly what’s in the score, but it comes out sounding like what should have been in the score. Take his recording with Fritz Kreisler of the Opus 30 No 3 Sonata of Beethoven, for example. You hear every single note and every single note is as important as every other, which is how Beethoven ought to be played, but seldom is.

"Being a composer, Rachmaninov also possessed a formidable musical mind. He dissected every piece before he put his hands on the keyboard. And he could do that because his compositional skills were so refined.

"I sometimes think when he plays his own music he’s less careful – almost as if he doesn’t quite think there should be so much fuss made about him. But when you hear how utterly unsloppy, in the emotional sense, his playing of his own music is, it discourages pianists from wallowing in it, as so many of them do. Then, if you want romantic playing he can do that too, and again I think of one of the recordings with Kreisler of the Grieg Sonata No 3. The second movement is heartrendingly marvellous and the way he plays the tune is completely different from the way Kreisler plays it. It makes the piece sound more eventful than it actually is – it’s a cracker of a recording!

"There’s a reason why Rachmaninov didn’t record more, and that’s because of the strained relations he had with the people at the Victor Talking Machine Company, who thought he was getting too much money for his recordings, and who turned down many of the things he offered to record. For instance, he was going to give a free recording of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, as long as they would let him record his orchestral Symphonic Dances, and they refused the offer. 

"The reason why the recording we do have of him playing his Third Concerto is, to many ears, a bit inadequate is because he had to go back and record the first side again four months later. He put cuts in it at the last moment because the producer Charles Connell gave him grief, saying he couldn’t play the piano and couldn’t compose either. In short he made the whole thing deeply unpleasant for Rachmaninov. So we’ve got this Mr Connell to thank for not having the Liszt Sonata, the Hammerklavier Sonata, the Waldstein Sonata, and the Chopin B minor Sonata. Of the recordings we do have, it’s very difficult to choose a favourite, but I absolutely love his recording of Schumann’s Carnaval. I think that’s perfect piano-playing from start to finish." 

Also chosen by: Stephen Kovacevich, Denis Matsuev, Alexey Yemtsov…

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The 10 Greatest Pianists of All Time
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