When Mily Balakïrev composed his oriental fantasy Islamey in 1869, it was declared by many to be unplayable. Still, after its premiere by Nikolai Rubinstein, many tried… Alexander Scriabin even crippled his right hand in a fanatical attempt to master it (meaning we have Balakïrev to thank for Scriabin’s switching to composition). Today, Islamey is standard fare at piano competitions, and concert pianists play it faster, louder and cleaner than ever before. And there are more of them out there – a surfeit of fleet-fingered virtuosi, churned out every year by conservatoriums from Beijing to Belfast. But if everyone can play Islamey, what are the pianistic heights to which musicians must aspire? Clearly, it’s not just a matter of technique. That is why we set out in search of pianists who have set the standard with performances that are not only technically, but also musically, exceptional.
Rather than choose our favourites, we asked more than 100 leading pianists to name the pianist who has inspired them most. As the answers flowed in, ten masters of the instrument emerged. But one legendary musician outstripped all others (by a healthy margin). If the piano is the king of instruments, this pianist is the king of kings. But who is he?
10. ARTUR SCHNABEL (1882-1951)
Who was he? An Austrian pianist who specialised in core German composers and made the first complete recording of the Beethoven sonatas.
What makes him great? A commitment to plumbing the intellectual and spiritual depths of a work, while eschewing displays of technical bravura.
Jonathan Biss On Schnabel’s living sound
“If I was asked which pianist I loved the most, I’d never be able to answer -– too many possibilities! But if it’s a question of who has inspired me, that’s easy: Artur Schnabel. My first exposure to his recordings of the Beethoven Sonatas came in my early teens, and quickly led to an obsession with those works which I expect to last for the rest of my life. I could not understand how he could convey so much meaning – spirituality, even – between two notes, or how he managed to produce from this instrument of keys and hammers a sound which was so buoyant, resistant to gravity, alive. Those two aims – to make a sound that lives, and to find music not only in the notes, but around them – are still primary for me, nearly two decades later.
When I went to study with Leon Fleisher, I was touched to hear him speak of Schnabel, his own teacher, with the same kind of awe. Fleisher’s own ideas about music are compelling, and he is matchlessly eloquent in expressing them, but it was often that he would simply tell us what Schnabel had told him about this piece or that, in a tone of voice which suggested that there was no greater authority. I like to think I may have learned something through this lineage, and each and every day I try to bring to my music something of the devotion, understanding and, above all, love, which emanates from every note the man played.”
Artur Schnabel was also chosen by András Schiff, Ronald Brautigam, Garrick Ohlsson.
9. Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991)
Who was he? A German pianist who focused on the greats of German music and played concerts well into his eighties.
What makes him great? Rhythmic inventiveness and a talent for bringing out the lyricism, charm and spontaneity in music, particularly in intimate pieces or passages.
Cyprien Latsaris On Kempff in concert
“I first heard Kempff live in Paris when I was about 13 years old and then I bought some Beethoven and Brahms recordings of his. He did not have the greatest pianistic technique, but he was very special. He created some sublime, divine musical moments that transported us towards the heavens. I am sure he would have been just as successful in concert today, because the most important factor for a musician is to have a very special personality, and he had that characteristic.
He has also influenced what I do at the piano by getting me to put myself in a second state, a spiritual state, before playing. There are so many recordings of his that I treasure, as Kempff excels in Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert and Bach. But, in particular, I would name the Klavierstücke of Brahms, the Beethoven middle sonatas and Concertos Nos 2 & 4, the Bach transcriptions, and the Schubert Klavierstücke.”
Wilhelm Kempf was also chosen by Michael Endres, David Fray, Eldar Nebolsin.
8. Alfred Brendel (born 1931)
Who is he? An Austrian pianist and teacher now based in London, who has recorded four complete sets of the Beethoven sonatas.
What makes him great? Rigorous adherence to the score without ever sounding dry or academic, and a knack for finding unexpected moments of humour, particularly
in Classical repertoire.
Paul Lewis On studying with Brendel
“I had lessons with Alfred Brendel in the 1990s, and he has been a great inspiration. He would talk about music and I would think, “Yeah, that really makes sense”. And then he would sit down and demonstrate things, and that’s when the light bulb really went off. The first time I met him was when I was 20 at the Guildhall School of Music. I remember feeling very nervous and intimidated. Seeing the silhouette of the glasses and the hair coming through the hall, I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, it’s him!’ I played a Haydn sonata for him and it was clear from the very start that he was interested only in the music. That’s all that matters. You may feel worried about yourself but that’s not the important thing because he’s not the least bit worried about anything but what you’re playing. That tallied with the impression I’d had of him before I met him, from his concerts and recordings – that of an incredibly serious-minded musician. It was a great inspiration and privilege to work with him over those years.”
Alfred Brendel was also chosen by Steven Osborne, Imogen Cooper, Till Fellner.
7. Glenn Gould (1932-1982)
Who was he? A highly eccentric Canadian pianist who, after a stellar concert career, shunned the stage at the age of 31 to focus on recordings and experimental projects.
What makes him great? A prodigious ability to sculpt the multiple lines of polyphonic music, such as Bach’s, with unsurpassed clarity. And a seeming incapacity for technical error.
Pascal Rogé on Gould the recreator
“I first heard Gould play rather late, since in my youth at the Paris Conservatory he was completely unknown. None of my colleagues or teachers ever mentioned his name – until in 1966 I met Bruno Monsaingeon, who revealed Gould to me and the French audience through his marvellous documentaries. It is hard to say what makes Gould’s playing so special, since everything in his playing is special. One can mention the touch, the phrasing, the articulation… But most important is the conception, the architecture, the personal and ‘creative’ approach to every single piece he plays. He is a creator, much more than an interpreter: each time you hear a piece played by Gould, you discover the piece for the first time. I always refer to his line: ‘If you are not convinced you can play a piece in a completely new and unique way, don’t play it.’ It’s an extreme affirmation, but so full of truth! A case in point is his two recordings of the Goldberg Variations, an example of Gould’s genius in even being able to ‘re-create’ himself. They are both masterpieces, and his legacy for all musicians of the world. I am always blown away when pianists dare play (or even touch) this piece after Gould. Are they totally unconscious or utterly pretentious?
In Bach he is completely unmatched. In fact, I am unable to hear, accept or conceive any other interpretation of Bach than his. I’d like to say he has been an influence on me, but no one is deranged enough to try and imitate Gould’s playing! Still, I remember when I recorded for French TV the complete First Book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. It was a project conceived for him by Monsaingeon, but Gould died before he could film it… And I was the one chosen to ‘replace’ him. Can you imagine the pressure?
I think the legacy of Gould for any artist is ‘the freedom of creation’ towards any composer, but at the same time respecting the logic of the music and the spirit of the composer – a very challenging equation!”
Glenn Gould was also chosen by Vladimir Ashkenazy, Fazil Say, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet.
6. Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)
Who was he? A French pianist and professor at the Conservatoire de Paris. He was called a “poet of the piano” for his mastery of the lyrical works of Chopin, Schumann and Debussy, producing landmark recordings, and meticulous editions, of their music.
What makes him great? A highly personal, subjective style that favours intuition and feeling over precise technique, resulting in performances of lush, transcendent musicality.
Stephen Hough On Cortot’s individuality
“Cortot is sometimes remembered as the pianist who played lots of wrong notes. This is unfair – not just because he had a dazzling finger technique, but because he never allowed striving for accuracy to distract him from the bigger picture. His mistakes can sometimes be heard even in the first notes of pieces, but I find these fallible moments endearing: the pianist is consumed by spiritual inspiration and oblivious of the physical risks involved. Cortot was a great virtuoso, conscious of the power to excite and thrill that Romantic piano music has, but you never feel manipulated in his musical company. You feel that even his most extravagant interpretative choices come from complete inner honesty; he is not sitting in a spotlight forcing you to look at him, but rather holding a torch, leading you forward to enlightenment.
I never tire of hearing his recordings, particularly those of Chopin and Schumann from the 1920s and ’30s. His combination of utter interpretative freedom (sometimes with a touch of eccentricity) and penetrating insight into the composer’s wishes is unique, in my view. There are artists who delight listeners with their wild and daring individuality, and there are others who uncover the written score for us with insight and reverence – but there are few who can do both. Cortot had a vision which saw beyond the academic or the theatrical to some wider horizon of creativity from whence the composers themselves might well have drawn inspiration.”
Alfred Cortot was also chosen by Alfred Brendel, Benjamin Grosvenor and Stanislav Ioudenitch.
5. Emil Gilels (1916-1985)
Who was he? An Odessa-born pianist who moved to Moscow in 1935, becoming, along with Richter, the leading Soviet pianist of his day. He and violinist David Oistrakh were among the first Soviet musicians allowed to concertise in the West.
What makes him great? His “golden” sound – an ability to execute the most taxing passages without compromising his burnished tone or depth of feeling.
Cédric Tiberghie On the grandeur of Gilels
“Gilels has this mixture of fantastic tone quality and an ability to make everything seem simple when you listen to him. Even when he plays a simple Bach prelude, or the Bach-Siloti Prelude in B minor, you think it’s simple to play, but then you buy the music and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is impossible!’
I first heard Gilels when I was eight or nine – his recording of the Brahms Second Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic. I wasn’t aware it was Gilels – or even a Brahms concerto – just one of my dad’s huge collection of cassette tapes. But it was my favourite music, and still today I think it’s one of the most beautiful recordings ever made of a piano concerto. The quality of tone and line, the inspiration and the beauty of the sound – everything is so perfect. It’s actually quite intimidating when you have to play the concerto yourself. He plays the first movement so slowly, and you think, OK, I’m going to do the same – which is a big mistake because he’s Gilels and you’re not. You need that golden sound Gilels possessed – more than anyone in history – as well as a clear idea of the structure and direction; and for this you need a lifetime of experience. Also, if I compare my hand to his, his was probably twice as heavy as mine. It’s like Oistrakh on the violin, there’s that question of flesh, pure matter creating the sound. If you have extremely thin hands, the quality of tone will probably be clearer than Gilels’.
So I don’t try to imitate an artist like him, but I try to keep in my head the grandeur of what he does. It’s something I always try to find, not artificially, but perhaps just to feel. So he’s a model for me in that respect.”
Emil Gilels was also chosen by Alice Sara Ott, Olli Mustonen, Lars Vogt.
4. Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)
Who was he? A Polish pianist who left Europe after WWI, settling in the US.
What makes him great? His interpretations of the music of Chopin, to which he brought a glowing tone and endless variety of phrasing.
Roger Woodward on sharing the legacy of Rubinstein
“When I was studying at the Chopin National Academy in Warsaw, our class sometimes met Professor Drzewiecki’s illustrious friends, one of whom was Arthur Rubinstein. He played for us and some students had the privilege of playing for him. Everybody in the class knew his recordings, as they were the classical Chopin interpretations that Drzewiecki had taught us. Grace, poise and thorough research were the hallmarks of his art, one that showed mastery but also enormous modesty and, contrary to what some ‘authorities’ had to say, a flawless technique.
Rubinstein’s critics, and there were many, tended to forget how thorough he was in researching the repertoire he played. Where others posed and only pretended they had researched their subject, Rubinstein’s performances reeked of integrity.
The earliest of Rubinstein’s three complete Mazurka recordings provided a high point for us in our study of Chopin, although for me it was his performances of the Nocturnes that provided the key to all other Chopin. I remain eternally grateful to Rubinstein for his recordings and what he had to say about them.
Rubinstein was not blessed with the sheer virtuosity of Rachmaninov or Horowitz, but he developed a mastery of legato cantabile and tempo rubato second to none. This is evident in such miraculous pre-war ‘live’ performances as his historic recording of the Chopin Piano Concertos with Sir John Barbirolli, although his performances of
the same with Witold Rowicki were even more beautiful – completely unforgettable.
I will never forget his kindness and generosity to our class, and his charm, modesty and scrupulous research. Although I remain a student all my life and continue to listen to his many wonderful recordings, I consider myself fortunate to share such rich experiences with my own students.”
Arthur Rubinstein was also chosen by Simon Trpceski, Jayson Gillham and Margaret Fingerhut.
3. Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997)
Who was he? A Russian pianist of German descent who became the USSR’s pre-eminent musician.
What makes him great? Rock-solid technique combined with an astonishing variety of sound.
Barry Douglas On the intensity of Richter
“I heard Richter play many times in England, France and America and what I loved about him was that he was able to make the piano sound not like a piano – it sounded like an orchestra or sometimes like a choir. Also, anything he did at the instrument always seemed totally right. It didn’t seem like his ideas; it seemed like the only way to do it. Every artist should aim, if they’re serious, to remove themselves from the equation and go to the heart or the essence of the music. Very few artists can do that, but for Richter it was totally natural.
He was also a very serious musician: after concerts he’d often decide he needed to practise, and would go home and practise for another two hours. He also insisted that each recital program contain at least one new piece. So his repertoire was vast. I don’t think his studio recordings were that successful: they didn’t really represent him. It’s the live recordings which are amazing. Everyone talks about the Sofia recital from 1958 where he plays Liszt’s Feux Follets and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Still, his recordings of the Beethoven sonatas are also second-to-none, not to mention the Russian repertoire – the little pieces of Tchaikovsky – and Prokofiev, who wrote his Seventh Sonata for him.
When I was at the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1984 he sent messages to me through others saying how fantastic he thought I was, which was very sweet. I wish I’d had a chance to get to know him better.
I will always look up to Richter. A performing artist mustn’t copy, but you can be inspired by the essence of what someone stood for, and that’s what I do with him. I know very deep inside myself I’m trying to grasp what Richter had, which is an amazing, fiery, burning intensity of passion for music – that’s what came across when he played. He was absolutely obsessed, and possessed, by music.”
Sviatoslav Richter was also chosen by Howard Shelley, Anna Goldsworthy and Piotr Anderszewski.
2. Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989)
Who was he? A Russian-born pianist who left for the West at age 21, where he was described as a “tornado unleashed from the steppes”. Most famous for his performances of Romantic piano repertoire and, surprisingly, Scarlatti, he returned to Russia for a triumphant farewell recital in 1986.
What makes him great? Sparkling virtuosity and extraordinary use of tone colour, combined with a talent for thrilling his audience, creating a furore at his live recitals.
Ingolf Wunder On the god-like gifts of Horowitz
“Horowitz combined high-class pianism with a unique taste in music and interpretation. What made him unique was his ability to chisel his feelings and moods out of the structures and harmonic material of the score. I think I first heard Horowitz when I was 14. I was just astonished by his tone and the variety of colours he could produce. And he always played as his hand was built, never betraying his taste and his view of music. He was always himself, and everything he touched became his own. His playing is never mediocre, it either works or it doesn’t. But if it does work, it’s simply god-like – incomparable with anything you’ve ever heard.
In a way, Horowitz is the product of a time that produced so many great pianists. I believe the way of thinking and our life has changed since then. Now musicians can go on the Internet and hear almost every recording of any piece; back then they were forced to think for themselves. Small things were given greater importance because it wasn’t possible to go anywhere instantly. It was not necessarily about who can play the fastest or any other competitive aspect, it was more about the music. There are still a few musicians that are like Horowitz and those old greats, and that’s the school we
ought to come back to.”
Vladimir Horowitz was also chosen by Freddy Kempf, Gerard Willems, Konstantin Scherbakov.
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.”
Sergei Rachmaninov was also chosen by Stephen Kovacevich, Denis Matsuev and Alexey Yemtsov.
Why are there so Many great Russian Pianists?
From the 19th Century there has been very systematic children’s musical education in Russia, which started back with the foundation of the Moscow Imperial Conservatory. Rachmaninov came to study there at the age of 14. He lived at the home of Nikolai Zverev, who had created a boarding school for young students, who were required to practise six hours per day, apart from their school study. [Other boarders with Zverev were Scriabin and Siloti].
That school transformed into the Central Music School in the Soviet era, and the system expanded throughout the country. Today in Russia there is serious musical education for kids starting from when they’re big enough to reach the keys. Vladimir Ashkenazy, Grigory Sokolov and Mikhail Pletnev are products of this rather strict Soviet school.
So children study for seven or eight years at a special music school, then at 15 they go to music college for three years. And that’s all before they enrol in the Conservatorium.
So if a kid is talented, by the age of 16 they can play basically everything. That means when Russian students come to the Conservatory, they are already professional pianists. They have almost no technical boundaries to overcome, and can just focus on becoming an artist. So it’s not like just having piano lessons with a teacher – it’s systematic and totally free musical education. Geniuses are born everywhere, but only in Russia are they nurtured in this way.
Dean of Piano, Moscow Conservatory