Even seasoned musicians need a little inspiration every now and then. Discover some of the most famous piano players of all time and learn from their style.
Although there are more than 7500 working parts in a piano, there are some people who can bring it all together and make it sound like one, glorious whole. Playing the piano takes dedication, a commitment to practice and self-improvement.
If you’re feeling as though the routine of practice is getting you down, then you can always look to the greats for inspiration. In this post, we are going to look at some of the most famous piano players and learn what made them special.
1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart is most famous for being a composer, and although he got an early start at that by creating music from the age of 5, he was also a virtuoso performer and also known as the child prodigy. His equally-talented sister, Nannerl, described his childhood playing as, ‘faultless and with the greatest delicacy’ claiming Mozart had an innate sense of time.
Of course, no recordings of Mozart playing are in existence, as he died at the age of 35 in 1791. What he did leave is the legacy of his compositions. Mozart was a genius in the truest sense of the word and must take the number one spot on a list of the best piano players of all time.
2. Martha Argerich
Considered by some to be the greatest living piano players, Martha Argerich was born in Argentina. Martha started piano lessons at age 3 and played her first piano concerto just 5 years later. She took her place on the world stage when she won the International Chopin Piano Competition in 1965.
In addition to performing herself, Argerich is often chosen to judge piano competitions. She supports upcoming great pianists, even resigning from the panel of the 1980 Chopin Piano Competition when her favorite contestant, Ivo Pogorelich was eliminated.
Although she has battled cancer on several occasions, Argerich is currently in remission. She does not enjoy the spotlight, outside of concerts, and shuns the press. Despite this, she has gained an international reputation and is one of the most inspirational piano players.
3. Jon Batiste
Batiste is another famous name in music, particularly in New Orleans, and Jon is a part of that family. He began his career as a drummer, however, he switched to playing piano at age 11, at his mother’s suggestion.
Included on the Forbes ’30 under 30′ list in 2016, Batiste has made a name for himself around the world. As well as gaining both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Julliard he has gained fame by leading the house band for The Late Show with its host, Stephen Colbert.
With his apparently effortless piano playing, Batiste is able to take even classic songs such as It’s a Wonderful World and put a new spin on them. He spans genres, playing and composing jazz pianists, blues, pop, classical and even R&B and hip-hop.
4. Sergei Rachmaninoff
Rachmaninoff was another early starter, playing the piano from the age of 4. Graduating from the Moscow Conservatory, he came to fame for his compositions, however, the negative reception of an early piece lead him to suffer a prolonged depression.
After seeking treatment, he went on to achieve critical success. When his family relocated to the USA following the Russian revolution, he earned money by performing in New York City.
Perhaps one of the most famous classical pianists, Rachmaninoff featured the piano heavily in his compositions. Although he is perhaps best known as a composer, his virtuoso performances continued until his death in 1943.
5. Dame Myra Hess
For the most part, the top piano players are recognized for their talent. They have a way of imbuing the music with emotion, that we can all respond to. In the case of Myra Hess, she became known for more than this.
Like most players on this list, she started taking lessons at an early age. She went on to study at the Guildhall School of Music, and then the Royal Academy of Music. She toured internationally where she received acclaim both as a soloist and an ensemble player.
It was during World War II that Hess became truly inspirational. Realizing that the cancellation of concerts due to blackout regulations, she organized concerts at lunchtime. Hosted by the National Gallery in London, Hess played 150 of them herself. as a result, she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE).
Following a stroke in 1961, Hess played her final concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London and then retired. She died of a heart attack in 1975, but her interpretations of Mozart, Bach, and Schumann live on.
6. Clara Schumann
You might have expected to see Robert Schumann on this list, and he is certainly one of the greatest composers of the romantic period. But it was his wife, Clara, who was by far the superior performer.
With a career spanning six decades, she was instrumental in changing the format of the piano recital. A close friend of Brahms who she described as ‘A gift sent straight from God,’ she was often his chosen performer to premiere his works.
She often performed with violinist, Joseph Joachim. Following Robert’s death in 1856, she toured with Joachim internationally. In addition to performing her own, and her husband’s compositions she also performed Brahms, Frederic Chopin, and Mendelssohn.
In her approach to playing, she tried to reflect on what the original intention of the composer had been. She then taught this to her students, and it went on to become influential around the world including at Julliard.
7. Ludwig van Beethoven
The great composer first became well-known as a piano virtuoso in his day, with a powerful and direct playing style.
“Beethoven’s playing differs so greatly from the usual method of treating the piano, that it seems as if he had struck out an entirely new path for himself.” Those are the words of one of Beethoven’s contemporaries, Carl Ludwig Junker. We may not have any recordings of Beethoven performing, but we have the virtuosic and inventive music he wrote for the piano and accounts from people who heard him play. The man who is now better known as a composer was much admired for his use of legato and the singing tone he was able to produce.
8. Vladimir Horowitz
This Russian giant was famed for his electrifying performances (and adaptions) of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, among other works. He liked to alter the scores of composers’ pieces to make them more “pianistic”. He was also able to play astonishingly quickly and with an astonishing dynamic range.
There’s a strong case to be made for Vladimir Horowitz to be crowned the greatest pianist of all time. He made his debut in 1920 in a solo recital in Kharkiv. In 1925 his fame had grown substantially and he crossed into the West, saying he wished to study with Artur Schnabel in Berlin – but he’d decided to leave for good and had stuffed American and British money into his shoes. He gave his debut in the US in 1928 at Carnegie Hall and he went on to become an American citizen. He is the best pianist known for his performances of Romantic works including music by Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Schumann.
9. Franz Liszt
One of the most famous piano players of all time! He had piano superpowers and used to dazzle audiences with his extraordinary abilities.
He was well-known (and mocked!) for acting dramatically while performing, contorting his face with passion and swaying his body.
He was the first person to hold solo piano recitals and the first to sit sideways to the audience so everyone could see his hands in action.
Vying with Chopin for the crown of greatest 19th-century-virtuoso was Franz Liszt, the Hungarian composer, piano teacher, and pianist. Among his best-known works are his fiendishly difficult Années de pèlerinage, the Piano Sonata in B minor and his Mephisto Waltz. And as a performer his fame was legendary – there was even a word coined for the frenzy he inspired: Lisztomania.
10. Arthur Rubinstein
This Polish American pianist is often quoted as the best Chopin performer of all time. He was found to have perfect pitch at the age of two and he made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic when he was just 13. He was taught by a pianist called Karl Heinrich Barth, who had been a pupil of Liszt, meaning that Rubinstein was part of a formidable pianistic tradition.
A charming old-world personality combined with a well-traveled, well-read intellectual, and of course a master pianist.
Rubinstein’s powerful, golden interpretations are filled with the joy of music and made him one of the most famous pianists of the 20th century.
11. Glenn Gould
If there were ever a pianist who divided classical music fans, Glenn Gould is it. The Canadian pianist is best known for his performances of the music of J.S. Bach, and particularly The Goldberg Variations. But he’s also famous for humming along while he played, performing on a tiny chair which he took to all his concerts and his exacting demands for recording and performing conditions.
12. Alfred Brendel
Brendel is an intellectual, known for his thoughtful and intelligent performances. He thinks that it is a pianist’s job to be responsible to the piece, not to show off or disrespect the composer’s work. He was self-taught and his career took off very slowly, but nowadays he commands huge respect in the musical world.
“If I belong to a tradition it is a tradition that makes the masterpiece tell the performer what he should do and not the performer telling the piece what it should be like.” Those are the words of the brilliant Mr. Brendel himself. He can turn his hand to music from any period but is particularly respected for his interpretations of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Liszt.
13. Sviatoslav Richter
One of the many greats battling for the title of best 20th-century pianist, Richter is part of a handful of mighty Russian pianists who emerged in the mid-20th century. He wasn’t a big fan of the recording process, however, so his best albums are recordings of his live performances including those in Amsterdam in 1986, in New York in 1960 and in Leipzig in 1963.
Richter seemed to be a superhuman player. Immensely talented, he would perform pieces exactly the way composers had written them, with ferocious speed and precision. He even criticized the liberal interpretations of other players.
I once heard an anecdote in which Richter turned up to a performance where the windows had been broken in by a fierce blizzard outside. The great pianist calmly sat at the piano and played perfectly, while icy winds blew all around the room. It’s usually almost impossible to play the piano if your hands are cold – your fingers seize up and don’t move! But somehow Richter did it…
14. Claudio Arrau
It’s said that this great Chilean pianist could read music before he could read words. It wasn’t long before he was playing works like the virtuosic Transcendental Etudes by Liszt. He’s perhaps best-known for his interpretations of the music of Beethoven. The legendary conductor Colin Davis said of Arrau: “His sound is amazing, and it is entirely his own… His devotion to Liszt is extraordinary. He ennobles that music in a way no one else in the world can.”
Arrau had a very rich, heavy tone, and an ability to bring out moving emotions from simple melodies. I really like his “Romantic” style of playing. A hero in his native country, he even has a wide avenue named after him in Santiago, Chile. Wow!
15. Murray Perahia
Perahia may have started playing the piano when he was just four but it wasn’t until the age of 15 that, he says, he became seriously interested in music. In 1972 he became the first North American to win the Leeds Piano Competition and the following year he worked with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at the Aldeburgh Festival. In 1992 a bone abnormality caused his hand to swell and forced him to take some time off from performing. It was during this time that he found solace in the music of J.S. Bach. His Bach recordings are regarded as some of the best ever made.
One thing that all these inspirational greatest pianists have in common is that they were given lessons from an early age. While this might put you off starting at a more advanced age, you must remember that these players had a gift and it was seen and nurtured by their parents. If you have a budding Mozart on your hands, we offer a pre-school piano program.
But if there is one lesson to take away from these famous piano players, it is the love of piano music. Performing is not just about hitting the right notes, it is interpreting the emotion behind the music and connecting the audience with that.
To learn more about how we can help you with that, get in touch today.