Throughout the ages, the meaning of what it is to be a ‘classical pianist’ has continued to dazzle audiences with immaculate and impeccable piano playing. With sensational control over expression, seamless use of tonal control and the ability to truly voice a piano, the classical pianist sets a benchmark for some of the finest musicians in the world.
Following our beginner’s guide to classical music, we wanted to take a moment to highlight some of our favourite classical pianists of all time, covering the likes of some of the most famous composers of their generations, to the modern virtuosos who are continuing to breathe new life into ancient compositions and continue to mesmerise audiences to this day.
Sit back and enjoy as we explore the depths of true classical prowess.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
To kick off, we perhaps begin with one of the most truly iconic names in piano history. Sergei Rachmaninoff is undoubtedly one of the most exquisite pianists to have ever walked the earth.
His exceptional composition and expression when behind the instrument is nothing short of angelic. Thankfully there are a plethora of recordings of Rachmaninoff playing, however even without those, his detail and depth within every composition brings forth the very best in technical musical theory. For those with the urge to try to overcome a Rachmaninoff, you must have a lust for expression along with exceptional power and stamina within your playing.
Rachmaninoff’s control over rhythm in particular is beyond exceptional, capturing the finest nuances within every note before shifting into a fast paced explosion of colour and propulsion. This unpredictability and mastery was so special that when pieces with the delicate intricacies of play, Rachmaninoff makes anything seem possible.
Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989)
Also around during the same time as Rachmaninoff was the likes of Horowitz, who’s exceptionally unique control over dynamics and phrasing made his music immediately recognisable and distinguished.
Despite being known for being somewhat quiet in his personal demeanour, when placed behind the instrument, Horowitz too became a virtuoso in every sense of the word. Unlike many amateur, or even professional names, Horowitz had a unique ability to be able to bring out the very best of piano music, where his soft playing was intricately delicate, it still rang true, whilst his loud fortissimo remained crystal clear, packing an extraordinary level of punch and precision.
Many refer to Horowitz’s pieces and renditions as being almost river-like, as his pieces were constantly changing in rhythm and dynamic but still followed an immense level of technical structure and ingenuity.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
This list of course also could not be considered complete without the likes of the best composers of all time, and perhaps one of the most iconic names in piano exceptionalism, Chopin. Wherever the word piano is said, it’s not uncommon to hear the word Chopin followed shortly afterwards.
Poland’s most famous composer was also one of the great piano virtuoso of his day and still remains so for his unmatched work and talents. Whilst there are no recordings of Chopin’s sound himself, those who continue to bring his works to life today are amidst the finest in the world.
The vast majority of his work was for solo pianos and many often describe him as being the creator of the school of piano and composition. Chopin’s sound is truly unique and brings with it an enormous level of lightness, delicacy and grace that has truly stood the test of time.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Perhaps one of the only piano composers to come close to matching Chopin’s exceptional talent was that of Liszt. A Hungarian composer, teacher and pianist whose works have remained as being some of the most intricate, difficult and iconic piano works to this date.
Between 1839 and 1847 Liszt gave well over a thousand concerts throughout most of western Europe, Turkey, Poland and Russia, stunning audiences with his exceptional playing but also his attention to showbiz razzmatazz. For example, it is reported that he started every performance by ceremoniously removing a pair of white gloves before playing and also that he would often bring a second piano on stage so that onlookers could admire his prowess from every conceivable angle.
Through his exceptional works such as the Mephisto Waltz and Sonata B, Liszt’s fame grew and grew. He is in fact one of the few to have a word coined for the frenzy he inspired: Lisztomania.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
As featured in our beginner’s guide to classical music, Beethoven remains one of the most iconic names in music to have ever lived. Despite his deafness, his ability to draw upon sound remains exceptional and only secures him further as one of the greatest composers and pianists of all time.
Many respect Beethoven as his approach to the instrument was so drastically different to his peers. The inventive music he wrote for the piano and accounts from people who heard him play all help paint the picture of Beethoven as almost an eccentric fanatic when behind the piano, bringing with it a breath of life, death and fiery passion that few others could (and still cannot) match.
Due to their iconic structure and emotional attachment, many classical newcomers are often surprised by how well known some of Beethoven’s most famous compositions are.
Want to play Beethoven? Check out our guide to Beethoven essential sheet music here.
Martha Argerich (1941 -)
Of course, the world of classical piano end exceptional play is still very much alive and ever growing as more and more musicians have gained access to the piano. With it, this has brought too modern names within music who continue to extend what is physically and musically possible on the piano.
The first of these names is undoubtedly Martha Argerich, an Argentinian pianist who’s volatile, explosive and simply mesmerising playing style is a true beauty to witness. Undoubtedly one of the most charismatic interpreters of the likes of Ginastera, Rachmaninoff and Schumann, Argerich achieved international recognition at an early age after moving to Europe and winning first prize at the Busoni and Geneva piano competitions in the late 1950s.
Since then she has continued to dazzle throughout her career and even returned to play the BBC Proms at the age of 78 in 2019 to perform Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto under the baton of Barenboim.
Lang Lang (1982-)
Last but not least on our list is one of the impeccable stars of modern classical music and a true connoisseur of keeping the art alive to new audiences across the world. With incredible charisma in both his playing and his showmanship, Lang Lang changed the classical music world forever.
His work has inspired thousands of children in China (and the rest of the world) to take up the piano in what has become known as ‘the Lang-Lang effect’. Whilst there are those who argue that Lang Lang’s interpretation of the pieces he performs is somewhat unorthodox, whether you enjoy his style or not, there is denying the impact Lang Lang has had on the classical scene and inspiring modern musicians to discover their own voice.
So there you have it! A basic guide to some of the best pianists to have ever graced the world! Did we miss your favourites, perhaps even the fantastic Valentina Lisitsa who features in this very article?! There are thousands and thousands of names we could have featured! Be sure to share yours with us on social media using the #MillersMusic
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