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Famous Pianists: The Top 18 Historical Classical Piano Players of All Time February 25 2022

In the world of piano playing, prodigies and masters of the instrument have been dominating the scene since the time of J. S. Bach. From composer-pianists to those who performed their roles solely as players of the instrument, let us take a look at why these 18 historical pianists from the classical to 20th-century era have left an indelible mark and a legacy which us mortals can only look up to.


LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)


Ludwig van Beethoven

Possibly THE greatest musician of all time, Beethoven was not only famous for his fiery temper and eccentric behavior but also renowned for his phenomenal compositional skills. Ironically, he was actually more well known as a performer than a composer back in his days.

[Image] A young Beethoven -Original Etching by Arthur Heintzelman (1943)

Beethoven is best known for his symphonic works such as the ‘Eroica’, the 5th and the 9th as well as his 5 piano concertos and his only completed violin concerto. He was a strict but insightful piano teacher, who would chide his students not for playing incorrect notes, but for playing rhythms wrongly, or for playing without showing emotions or passion in one’s sound.


FREDERIC CHOPIN (1810-1849)


Chopin Carte de Visite

This phenomenal Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic period wrote primarily for solo piano, composing works that would tug at the heartstrings of many listeners and would also challenge even the most seasoned pianists with his compositions, owing to a need for the most subtle touches on the piano and a complete command of the instrument.

[Image] Carte-de-visite of Frederic Chopin by photographer Wesenberg, St. Petersburg, ca.1860s

Throughout his (unfortunately short) lifetime, Chopin maintained worldwide renown as a leading musician of his era, one whose poetic genius was based on a professional technique that was without equal in his generation and one which only peers could look up to in awe.

Over 230 works of Chopin survive, and only a few range beyond solo piano music as either piano concertos, songs, or chamber music.

 

 

FRANZ LISZT (1811-1886)


Franz Liszt

Liszt was possibly one of the greatest virtuoso pianists of all time, who also had a connection with the family of Richard Wagner - his daughter Cosima married Richard Wagner and thus sparked off the incredible musical lineage of the Liszt-Wagner era.

[Image] Beautiful carte-de-visite of Franz Liszt, by Ferencz Kozmata, Budapest, from around 1865.

Liszt was a friend, musical promoter, and benefactor to many composers of his time, including Chopin, Richard Wagner, Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Edvard Grieg. Liszt left behind a huge body of work that influenced his forward-looking contemporaries and anticipated 20th-century ideas and trends. Among Liszt's musical contributions was the symphonic poem where he developed thematic transformation as part of his experimentations in musical form.

 

 

SERGEI RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)


Rachmaninov Signed Photograph 1939

A musical giant in both the physical and figurative sense, Rachmaninoff stood at a towering 1.98m tall (!) and represented a connecting era bridging the gap between that of Liszt and the 20th-century musicians.

[Image] Gorgeous photograph of S. Rachmaninoff signed and inscribed by the composer and pianist, dated in 1939

He had a humongous handspan that allowed him to play 13ths easily on either hand and his compositions are not only known for their beauty and finesse but also regularly known for their sheer difficulty seeing as not many people have the kind of reach that he does…obviously. Rachmaninoff was one of the last great representatives of Romanticism in Russian classical music.


JOSEF HOFMANN (1876-1957)


Josef Hofmann Signed Photograph

The Polish-American pianist distinguished himself not only as a brilliant concert artist but also as an inventor, with over 70 patents under his belt, with inventions including pneumatic shock absorbers for cars and airplanes which was commercially successful from 1905 to 1928.

[Image] Pianist Hoffman seated in front of a piano, signed and dated by him in 1942

Other inventions included a windscreen wiper, a furnace that burned crude oil, a house that revolved with the sun, a device to record dynamics in reproducing piano rolls that he perfected just as the roll companies went out of business, and piano action improvements adopted by the Steinway Company. The Josef Hofmann Piano Competition, co-sponsored by the American Council for Polish Culture and the University of South Carolina Aiken was established in his honor in 1994.


ALFRED CORTOT (1877-1962)


Alfred Cortot Signed Photograph

One of the most renowned French pianists of the 20th century, Cortot had formed a formidable trio with violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablo Casals in 1904, becoming one of the leading trios of the era. In 1907, he was appointed Professor by Gabriel Fauré at the Conservatoire de Paris, replacing Raoul Pugno.

[Image] Cortot -one of the most renowned classical musicians of the 20th century.

He continued to teach at the Paris Conservatoire until 1923. As one of the most celebrated piano interpreters of Chopin, Schumann, and Debussy, Cortot produced printed editions of the piano works of all three, notable for their inclusion of meticulous commentary on technical problems and matters of interpretation. Cortot died on 15 June 1962, aged 84, of uremia from kidney failure in Lausanne, Switzerland.

 


ARTUR SCHNABEL (1882-1951)

Arthur Schnabel Original Photo

Arthur Schnabel in performance -an original print by photographer Jim Arkatov

Known for his intellectual seriousness as a musician and avoidance of pure technical bravura, Artur Schnabel was among the 20th century's most respected and important pianists. His playing displayed marked vitality, profundity, and spirituality in the Austro-German classics, particularly the works of Beethoven and Schubert. Between 1932-1935, he produced the first recording of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas. Fast forward nearly a century later in 2018, the Library of Congress selected this recording to be placed in the National Recording Registry for its historical significance.


WILHELM BACKHAUS (1884-1969)


The German pianist and pedagogue Wilhelm Backhaus was particularly well known in the 20th century for his interpretations of the great classical and romantic masters as Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, and Brahms. He was also much admired among his colleagues as a chamber musician. Backhaus had a long career on the concert stage and in the recording studio.

Wilhelm Backhaus Large Photograph Signed

Wilhelm Backhaus at the piano by photographer Zuretti Fiorini, Buenos Aires; signed, inscribed and dated by the celebrated pianist in 1921

He recorded the complete piano sonatas and concertos of Beethoven and many works of Mozart and Brahms, and in 1928 he became the first pianist to record the complete Etudes of Frédéric Chopin. Backhaus' readings are still widely regarded as among the best recordings of those works. His chamber recordings include Brahms's cello sonatas with Pierre Fournier and Schubert's Trout Quintet with the International Quartet and Claude Hobday.


ARTHUR RUBINSTEIN (1887-1982)


Possibly the greatest pianist since Rachmaninoff, Rubinstein (not to be confused with Anton Rubinstein!) was a Polish-American pianist who received international acclaim for his performances of the music written by a variety of composers and many regard him as one of the greatest Chopin interpreters of his time.

Artur Rubinstein Signed Photograph 1951

Artur Rubinstein at the piano - a beautiful sepia photograph signed and inscribed by him with a short sentiment in Spanish, dated in 1951

He played in public for an astonishing eight decades. Rubinstein loved his music as much as he loved wine and women and throughout his life, was to have numerous marriages, affairs, and children. The most notable of his adventures was a 90-year old Rubinstein leaving one of his wives, though never officially divorced, for the then 33-year old Annabelle Whitestone, which caused a public sensation and outcry in the music world.


WILHELM KEMPFF (1895-1991)


Wilhelm Kempff Signed Photograph

Although his repertoire included works of the great classical and romantic masters like Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms, Kempff was particularly well known for his interpretations of the music of Beethoven and Schubert, recording the complete sonatas of both composers.

[Image] Promo photograph of the great Wilhelm Backhaus by Grammophon, dated in 1947.

When pianist Artur Schnabel undertook his pioneering behemoth complete recording of the Beethoven sonatas in the 1930s, he told EMI that if he didn't complete the cycle, they should have Kempff complete the remainder. That was how valued Kempff was in the eyes of his colleagues. Later, when Kempff was in Finland, Jean Sibelius asked him to play the slow movement of Beethoven's 29th Sonata, the Hammerklavier; after Kempff finished, Sibelius told him, "You did not play that as a pianist but rather as a human being."


VLADIMIR HOROWITZ (1903-1989)


Vladimir Horowitz Autograph

Known for his virtuosic tone colors and phenomenal command of the piano, Vladimir Horowitz rightfully deserves his place on the list of the greatest pianists of all time. In 1962, Horowitz embarked on a series of recordings for Columbia Records.

[Image] Horowitz in his elder years, dated in 1989

The best known are his 1965 return concert at Carnegie Hall and a 1968 recording from his television special, Vladimir Horowitz: a Concert at Carnegie Hall, televised by CBS. Horowitz married Wanda Toscanini, the daughter of famed conductor Arturo Toscanini. Horowitz and Toscanini made several recordings to critical acclaim. Horowitz later received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan.

 


CLAUDIO ARRAU (1903-1991)


Claudio Arrau Signed Photograph

Arrau was born in Chillán, Chile, the son of Carlos Arrau, an ophthalmologist who died when Claudio was only a year old, and Lucrecia León Bravo de Villalba, a piano teacher. His ancestor Lorenzo de Arrau, a Spanish engineer, was sent to Chile by King Carlos III of Spain.

[Image] A very young Claudio Arrau

Through his great-grandmother, María del Carmen Arrau Daroch del Solar, Arrau was a descendant of the Campbells of Glenorchy, a Scottish noble family. Arrau's attitude toward music was very serious.

He preached fidelity to the score, but also the use of imagination. Although he often played with slower and more deliberate tempi from his middle age onward, he had a reputation as a fabulous virtuoso earlier in his career.

 


RUDOLF SERKIN (1903-1991)


Rudolf Serkin Signed Photo in Performance

Father of pianist Peter Serkin and cellist Judith Serkin, as well as 15 grandchildren, Rudolf Serkin was one of the most notable pianists of the 20th century. Serkin was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 and in March 1972 celebrated his 100th appearance with the New York Philharmonic by playing Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1.

[Image] Rudolf Serkin in performance

The orchestra and board of directors also named Serkin an honorary member of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Society, a distinction also conferred on Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, and Paul Hindemith. Serkin died of cancer on 8 May 1991, aged 88, at home on his Guilford farm.

 

 

SVIATOSLAV RICHTER (1915-1997)


Sviatoslav Richter Signed Promo Photograph

Known primarily for the depth of his interpretations, virtuoso technique, and a vast repertoire, Richter was a Soviet pianist who is frequently regarded as one of the greatest pianists of all time. In 1949, Richter won the Stalin Prize, which led to extensive concert tours in Russia, Eastern Europe, and China.

[Image] Sviatoslav Richter - a promo photograph by Christian Steiner, signed by the star pianist

While he very much enjoyed performing for an audience, Richter detested planning concerts years in advance, and in later life took to playing at very short notice in small, most often darkened halls, with only a small lamp lighting the score. Richter said that this setting helped the audience focus on the music being performed, rather than on extraneous and irrelevant matters such as the performer's grimaces and gestures.

 


EMIL GILELS (1916-1985)


Emil Gilels Signed Photograph 1969

Another prominent Soviet pianist was Emil Gilels, whose sister Elizaveta married Leonid Kogan, one of the 20th century’s great violinists. Gilels is universally admired for his superb technical control and burnished tone.

[Image] Emil Gilels in his mature years, dated in 1969

Gilels had a repertoire ranging from baroque to late Romantic and 20th-century classical composers. His interpretations of the central German-Austrian classics formed the core of his repertoire, in particular Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann; but he was equally illuminative with Scarlatti and 20th-century composers such as Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev. In 1981, Gilels suffered a heart attack after a recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. His health started declining thereafter. He died unexpectedly during a medical checkup in Moscow on 14 October 1985, only a few days before his 69th birthday.


DINU LIPATTI (1917-1950)


Dinu Lipatti

Probably one of classical music’s greatest tragedies was the early death of the 33-year old Lipatti, the Bucharest-born Romanian who passed away due to causes related to Hodgkin's disease. Lipatti gave his final recital, also recorded, on 16 September 1950 at the Besançon Festival in France.

[Image] Dinu Lipatti in his youth

Despite severe illness and a high fever, he gave superb performances of works by Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and Chopin. He died less than 3 months later in Geneva aged 33, from a burst abscess on his one lung. Lipatti's piano playing is widely appreciated for the absolute purity of his interpretations, at the service of which he used a masterful pianistic technique. His recording of Chopin's Waltzes has remained in print since its release and has long been a favorite of many classical music lovers.


ARTURO BENEDETTI MICHELANGELI (1920-1995)


Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli Signed Photograph 1970

Few pianists have sparked greater awe and controversy than Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli: awe through his sublime perfection, controversy through his interpretations.

[Image] Maestro Benedetti Michelangeli in his mature years, dated in 1950

At his greatest the results were unforgettable and, in common with one or two artists in each generation, he could eclipse even his most illustrious colleagues.

All who heard him were left with indelible memories of this ‘difficult’ and autocratic arch-perfectionist of the keyboard. Additionally, Michelangeli enjoyed teaching and later attracted carefully selected students to his annual masterclasses. 

 

 


GLENN GOULD (1932-1982)


Glenn Gould Original Large Photograph

Perhaps the most famed interpreter of the works of J.S. Bach, Gould’s technique, sound, and playing displayed a profound understanding of the music of Bach; his technical proficiency and a capacity to articulate the contrapuntal texture blew many of his contemporaries away.

[Image] Iconic photograph of Glenn Gould by American photographer Don Hunstein

Gould was a prolific contributor to musical journals, in which he discussed music theory and outlined his musical philosophy. Gould was also widely known for his unusual habits: his iconic chair, the specific height the piano had to be set to and humming while playing which his sound engineers were sometimes irked that they were unable to exclude them from Gould’s recordings, among many others. Gould was indeed a unique icon of the 20th century, a true musician in its fullest sense of the word.

 

SEE ALSO:

- Pianists Autographs & Memorabilia

- Pianists Signed Programs

Celebrated Pianist Leon Fleisher Just Passed Away (Blog Article)

The Life of Chopin by Franz Liszt (Blog Article)

Anton Rubinstein – Talented Pianist and Educator (Blog Article)

- William Kapell: Honest American Pianist of All Time (Blog Article)

Top 10 Famous Conductors in Classical Music and Opera (Blog Article)

 

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