The pianists that really matter

Same rules as the conductors who matter: I heard these pianists live in concert, not on record or radio, and they changed my outlook in some way.

These players:

1 Emil Gilels

2 Sviatoslav Richter

3 Arthur Rubinstein

4 Martha Argerich

5 Daniil Trifonov

6 Daniel Barenboim

7 Vladimir Ashkenazy

8 Claudio Arrau

9 Mitsuko Uchida

10 Magda Tagliaferro

See also: The maestros that matter.

UPDATE: Perahia and Pires came close.

Horowitz I never saw.

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  • Missing is Alfred Brendel – the clarity of whatever he performed, everything always made sense, technique seemed effortless, and the beauty was breathtaking. The recordings are wonderful, but the live recitals were glorious. Miss him – wish him good health in his retirement.

    • That devalues NL’ s list immediately. What ‘s the point of these lists anyway? They’re just names. OK, so here’s a name: Noel Mewton-Wood. Good luck! Oh, I forgot. Shouldn’t Monique de la Bruchollerie and Guiomar Novaes be on the list too? I can’t even not mention Lili Kraus, Annie Fischer and Ingrid Haebler and (#MeToo) they’re all women. Is there a list that mentions Clara Haskil? Oh, I give up. This is all shit. What the hell are we doing here, NL?

  • quite unbelievable not to mention ABM on any list of pianists in the second half of 20th century. not to consider Kempff or Gieseking is a historical misrepresentation. to forget Pollini or Sokolov is quite strange. but to write any list without Brendel and Gulda is a crime. it shows a political exclusion but not musical / stylistical variety (or feeling).

  • Kissin would have to be on my list. As a friend said to me 20 years ago after I had taken her to a recital: “I felt I was in the presence of a genius.”

    • I heard you live at Lancaster University in the early 1980’s (wrote your programme notes, too). You were superb, thanks again.

  • 1 Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli

    2 Sviatoslav Richter

    3 Shura Cherkassky

    4 Friedrich Gulda

    5 Annie Fischer

    6 Radu Lupu

    7 Ivo Pogorelich

    8 Arcadi Volodos

    9 Martha Argerich

    10 Benjamin Grosvenor

  • I never heard Gilels, Rubinstein, or Tagliaferro live, but the other seven could certainly produce truly special performances when on good form.

    Two more names to conjure with: Wilhelm Kempff and Clifford Curzon. They were pretty old by the time I got to hear them, and the results were (shall we say?) variable. But at their best (e.g. Curzon in K.491) they were superb and far more interesting than their studio records would suggest.

  • The living, breathing and active, in no particular order

    Rafal Blechacz
    Beatrice Rana
    Jeremy Denk
    Igor Levit
    Daniil Trifonov
    Peter Hill
    Paul Lewis
    Martha Argerich (pace #MeToo)
    (Don’t know if still playing but) Russell Sherman
    Andras Schiff

  • Let’s accept the topic of “Conductors who matter”, but when it comes to pianists, that list above totally excludes the world of Jazz giants, which in my opinion is a no-no. Keith Jarret, Benny Green, Martial Solal, are still alive and have inspired and changed the outlooks of musicians all over the world in every domain. As for Art Tatum, here’s part of a quote from Wikipedia:

    [Pianist Teddy Wilson observed, “If you put a piano in a room, just a bare piano. Then you get all the finest jazz pianists in the world and let them play in the presence of Art Tatum. Then let Art Tatum play … everyone there will sound like an amateur.”

    Vladimir Horowitz, Arthur Rubinstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leopold Godowsky, David Oistrakh, and George Gershwin are said to have marveled at Tatum’s genius. Jazz critic Leonard Feather called Tatum “the greatest soloist in jazz history, regardless of instrument.” ]

    • in an unordered list:
      Keith Jarrett
      Chick Corea
      Joe Zawinul
      Jessica Williams
      Don Pullen
      McCoy Tyner
      Herbie Hancock

  • I did hear Rubinstein live but my top 10 are Dominique Merlet; Jean Hubeau; John Lill; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet; Ian Brown; Cedric Tiberghien;Francesco Piemontesi; Igor Levitt; Richard Saxel and Claudio Arrau

    • I would like to have included ANDRE TCHAIKOWSKY but although I met and had drinks with him I only heard him playing while giving masterclasses in Oxford in 1978 not in a concert

    • Ooh dear…you’ve been very unlucky in your listening life, (apart from Arrau, Bavouzet, Brown….). John Lull…….zzzzz!

  • Four in particular have stuck in my mind for decades:
    Wilhelm Kempff
    Arthur Rubinstein
    Annie Fischer
    Clifford Curzon

  • Applying strictly the criterion, ‘they changed my outlook in some way’, would no doubt generate some unusual and unlikely results. I’d say that the pianist who had the greatest impact on me personally was Tamás Érdi. No, he isn’t particularly well known, and he probably isn’t on many people’s lists of the top 10 pianists, but it was hearing a concert of his, and buying a signed CD afterwards, that got me interested in Chopin. I’ve probably heard better concerts by Maurizio Pollini and Angela Hewitt, but it was Tamás Érdi who changed my outlook.

  • 1. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, 2. Krystian Zimerman, 3. Murray Perahia, 4. Glenn Gould, 5. Emil Gilels, 6. Walter Gieseking, 7. Friedrich Gulda, 8. Vladimir Horowitz, 9. Daniel Barenboim, 10. Yundi

  • What exactly are the rules to this pointless parlor game again? Let’s see, here are some pianists worthy of note that I’ve seen and heard without repeating from the initial list.

    1) Evgeny Kissin
    2) György Cziffra
    3) Vladimir Horowitz
    4) Marc-Andre Hamelin
    5) Cecile Licad
    6) Cyprien Katsaris
    7) Arcadi Volodos
    8) Krystian Zimerman
    9) Keith Jarrett
    10) Pierre-Laurent Aimard

  • Definitely agree with the first four – but no Brendel? No Schiff? No Perahia? No Pires? The rest do not ake the cut compared to these.

    • And there goes another shred of respect for my fellow humans.

      It’s funny to see how people rate MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE.

      That was the criteria, wasn’t it:

      “I heard these pianists live in concert, not on record or radio, and they changed my outlook in some way.”

      For me that’s Grimaud.

  • 1) Martha Argerich

    2) Martha Argerich

    3) Martha Argerich & Alexander Gurning (Tanglewood)

    4) Martha Argerich & Nelson Freire

    5) Martha Argerich

    6) Martha Argerich

    7) Martha Argerich

    8) Martha Argerich

    9) Martha Argerich

    10) Martha Argerich

  • A couple of missing ones, off the top of my head, as it were:

    Grigory Ginsburg

    Clara Haskill

    Clifford Curzon

    Solomon

    Cziffra

    John Ogden

    Perhaps remove Trifonov, at least for now.

      • I guess you’re wrong, NL. The rabble has spoken! (As of now, 2 yay, 4 nay.)

        If I need visual proof for the claim that (anonymous (=not tied to a user name)) voting is tremendously stupid, I’ll refer to this example.

    • Yes, I did hear Curzon, in London, Ogden once (at the Tonhalle in Zurich) and Cziffra – many times (in Geneva, Montreux and Zurich and elsewhere – what a stunning pianist he was. I still treasure the few minutes I spoke with him after his first Zurich recital, and his signature on my copy of the concert programme). But you are right, Mr Lebrecht, I did miss the point about ‘pianists one has heard’. I did’nt hear Grigory Ginsburg and Egon Petri or Clara Haskill live — andhow I wish I had!!

    • At least get John Ogdon’s name right. My father said he was a wonderful person, and had incredible octaves!

  • Grigory Sokolov, Zoltan Kosics, Ivo Pogorelich, Alicia Dela Rosha, Jean-Marc Luisada, Olle Mustonen, Vladimir Sofronitsky,

  • Live – might not make 10 here but these were quite something –

    Richter
    Cherkassky (what an aristocrat!).
    Pletnev (a mesmerising Waldstein)
    Gavrilov, with Muti, that was a real battle in the Ravel LH, no cheating there)
    Ovchinikov
    Peter Donohoe (as one of the four in Les Noces. Not 10, I must get out more but I’m addicted to blogs

  • I’ve heard a number of excellent pianists live. Of those, Horowitz, Brendel and Bolet were each striking in their own way and immensely impressive in their particular repertoires. Fabulous players, great music, interesting insights, but not exactly outlook-changing, as their recordings and reputations preceded them.

    Of the pianists that I’ve heard live that “changed my outlook in some way,” I think of two that I heard in my university days:

    • Walter Klien came and played all the Beethoven sonatas in a series of about six recitals spread out over the academic year. Up to that point I had only heard a few of the popular, nicknamed, sonatas. To hear the whole sweep of Beethoven’s sonatas for the first time, and especially the late sonatas, was a real discovery and delight. (I had never heard of Klien, either. But as I recall, he was an excellent performer, fully up to the technical and artistic challenges of all the sonatas.)

    • David Bean was on our piano faculty and played regular recitals on campus. I don’t know if anyone remembers him these days, but he made some well-regarded LPs of Liszt and Ginastera and such for ABC/Westminster. At my university he would play these massive recitals (e.g., the complete Liszt “Harmonies poétiques et religieuses” in one evening). He was a serious, expressive musician with a huge virtuoso technique and he made a persuasive case for Liszt as a “real composer” of substance, back at a time when many critics (and professors) considered Liszt to be all flash and no depth.

    In retrospect, I was lucky to be in school back when artists like these were considered worth supporting by the university administration.

  • How come that you don’t speak about Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Gregory Sokolov? And you name Uchida and Barenboim??? It’s more than obvious that you’re not a pianist…

    • I take the list as reflecting personal experience. Sokolov gave one of my most important concerts, but several other greats did not on those nights truly connect with me in the same way.

  • “Same rules as the conductors who matter: I heard these pianists live in concert, not on record or radio, and they changed my outlook in some way.

    Reading some of the comments, I wonder if people read that sentence before jumping to the list.

    These are people that NL heard live and who “did something” for him, not (necessarily) “historically important” pianists. You can’t scold him for leaving anyone off the list, no matter how famous: either he never heard them live, or he did and wasn’t much affected by it.

  • If one could include some pianists who performed in the earlier 20th century, one should not fail to mention Artur Schnabel and some of his pupils, especially Leon Fleisher (who still plays and teaches today). Schnabel’s great assistant Leonard Shure played very little in public, but made some fantastic recordings. Rudolf Serkin is another unmissable name from that era.

  • Top ten dead pianists I have heard live. No particular order. Horowitz, Arrau, Serkin, Gilels, Richter, Horszowski, Michelangeli, Curzon, Lefébure, Nicolayeva, Annie Fischer.

  • My 10 live
    1. Kempff
    2. Rubinstein
    3. Arrau
    4. Brendel
    5. Gieseking
    6. Gulda
    7. Curzon
    8. Michelangeli
    9. Solomon
    10. Backhaus

  • From the esteemed working musician readers on this blog, I’d like to see pianist and conductor lists from whom they actually played with.

    • OK I’m a long term orchestral musician. People I’ve worked with.
      Conductor top ten in no particular order:
      Svetlanov
      Sanderling
      Levine
      Berglund
      Sawallisch
      Salonen
      Ozawa
      Matacic
      Maazel
      Gardiner
      Pianists:
      Ashkenazy
      Lupu
      Schiff
      Gilels
      Argerich
      Pletnev
      Zimmerman
      Pires
      Larrocha
      Volodos

  • Evgeny Kissin
    Emil Gilels
    Michail Pletnev
    Boris Berezovsky
    Vladimir Horovitz
    Grigory Sokolov
    Marta Argerich
    Arkady Volodos

    • Amazing; Martha alone among the Russians! What an accolade. But agreed with most of your list, especially Pletnev and Volodos. I’d probably remove Boris Bear-is-off-his-key……

  • I mostly agree with the list, heard them all in concert, would remove Barenboim and Uchida, (didn’t change my outlook!), and insert, as a great personal favorite, Shura Cherkassky.

    Trifonov, unfortunately, stays on the list, having changed my outlook: i have now witnessed murder, (musically speaking), committed live on stage and wish i hadn’t.

    I would add Horowitz, very different sound from his records, the younger Kissin and Mieczysław Horszowski.

    John Ogdon weighs in (almost literally!) as a major influence for the stunning range of repertoire; he could play phenomenally well, or badly- depending, so might be too controversial a choice.

  • Once again I challenge my fellow SD addicts (and Norman, if he dares) to produce a list of pianists of international reputation, with significant careers- living or dead- whose performances you ABSOLUTELY CAN’T STAND. In order to start the ball rolling, I’ll list my two all-time top choices:

    Vladimir Horowitz
    Claudio Arrau

    • It would be interesting to know why you can’t stand my favourite pianist (live and on records), Claudio ARRAU.

      • Please remember that this is only my opinion, and is therefore of absolutely no importance for you. If you love Arrau, that is all that matters. However, I heard him both live and in many recordings, and I find his performances to be leaden, self-involved and joyless. Remember, though, that these are basically undefinable critic-speak for I just don’t like his playing.

  • Let’s see. In no particular order:

    Glenn Gould
    Emil Gilels
    Arthur Rubinstein
    Maurizio Pollini
    Annie Fischer
    Peter Serkin
    Mieczysław Horszowski
    Peter Katin
    Ingrid Fliter
    Yevgeny Kissin

  • I’ve heard 7 of these on recordings and one, maestro Rubinstein I saw live with my dad when I was about ten years old. All are great in their own ways but the one that speaks to me the most is Claudio Arrau. He always seems to completely subvert his ego and technique to the full service of the music.
    In the end it’s all a subjective game but fun nevertheless.

  • You can’t put Daniel Trifonov on this list; he is too young and too new and hasn’t weathered the test of time OR posterity. Rubinstein should be number one and you missed Horowitz so this isn’t a list at all; it’s stupid and it seems to be very arbitrary.

    • Mr. Paul, ,,Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty.,, Kafka. Daniil. Trifonov keeps the ability to give us BEAUTY. It’s most important, isn’t it?

  • No mention of Glenn Gould so far? I’m okay with that.

    Hearing Murray Perahia live and on recordings was hugely formative for me, especially his Mozart concerti.

    I would nominate György Sebök, although his greatest contributions may have been in chamber music and as a teacher rather than as a soloist.

  • Of those I heard live (going to concerts from the late 80th):

    1. Radu Lupu (the greatest recitals I have ever heard)
    2. Alfred Brendel (The best live piano concerto I attended – Beethoven 3rd)
    3. Andras Schiff (most interesting programs)
    4. Ivo Pogorelich (at his best- I also so him in his sad decline)
    5. Martha Argerich
    6. Maria Jau Pires
    7. Uchida
    8. Perahia ( usually better in recordings than in live concerts)

  • Top ten living pianists I have heard live. No particular order. Argerich, Lupu, Zimerman, Freire, Pires, Pletnev, Perahia, Wang, Kovacevitch, Kissin. I also liked the young Pollini.

  • Alicia de Larrocha?
    Also,how about the legendary Ervin Nyiregyhazi,the genius whose sonorities bordered on superhuman? He had a brilliant career in the 1920s then disappeared. He was found several decades later in a Los Angeles flophouse.

    • Did you hear the Hungarian live? I doubt it as he was incapable of managing his career and ended up living in dire poverty. He made two records after not touching a piano for 20 years and was, in my view, the worst banger I’ve ever heard but then I’m an Arrau and Gilels devotee.

      • Dire poverty?
        From where did he find the $s to buy all the Jack Daniels which he drank copiously?!
        The guy will always remain a mystery.
        You either love him or hate him…..

  • have you heard the story about horowitz returning to his favorite italian restaurant and being hailed by the owner as the greatest pianist in the world? horowitz asked why such a greeting as he never said that before. the owner replied “haven’t you heard, liberace just died?”

    • Ha Ha! I’m sure Horowitz would have laughed his head off at that one, he loved a good joke, especially against himself.

  • When I commented before, I neglected to mention that I did indeed hear Schnabel in concert. It was his last performance in Chicago. It must have been around 1948 or 1949 (before his death in 1951). I didn’t actually hear Leonard Shure in concert, but I heard him in master classes weekly in those years when I studied with him. I forgot to mention William Kapell, whose name certainly belongs in these listings. His life was cut short, but his reputation long outlives him

  • Michael Pletnev,
    Martha Argerich,
    Cyprien Katsaris
    Fazil Say
    Grigory Sokolov
    Vladimir Horowitz
    Mark-Andre Hamelin
    Daniil Trifinov
    Yuja Wang
    Christopher Falzone

  • Not one mentions Earl Wild, surely one of the greats of the 20th century. I heard him several times in both recital and concerto. A big bear of a man with an extraordinary technique. His Chopin and Liszt were utterly stunning and quite unbeatable. As far as I recall he only made one visit to the UK when he recorded the Rachmaninoff concerti with Horenstein and made one TV programme with Previn and the LSO. In the early 1980s, Harold Schoenberg wrote a long article in the New York Times bracketing him with Horowitz and Cherassky. Such a pity that his career was largely anchored in North America and Asia.

    • YES! Earl Wild! how could i have not mentioned him, having heard him several times in recital and once in concerto. His pianism and musicality was controversial, sometimes with extremes of dynamics and personal ideas at the limits of over-mannerism, but what daring, élan, brilliance and total conviction. He certainly changed my ideas; his own transcriptions & paraphrases are almost all wonderful, (try the 7 vituoso études on Gershwin), adding his personal stamp of invention and humor. Also a composer, conductor and notable chamber music partner.

    • Earl gave a Wigmore Hall recital in the mid 1980’s. I was at the rehearsal and John Ogdon and Brenda came in to say hi. JO was a lovely man.

      Earl was great fun and adored Rachmaninov and Petri.

      I produced his dell’Arte recordings.

  • Without hierarchy:

    Leon Fleisher
    Gary Graffman
    Michael Pletnev
    Martha Argerich
    Grigory Sokolov
    Robert D. Levin
    Evrgeny Kissin

    Christopher Falzone
    Daniil Trifonov
    Lucas Debargue
    Yuja Wang

  • I was born in 1963 and these are my heroes heard live:

    (at school): Shura Cherkassky
    Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich (overwhelming op. 111)

    (at university): Jorge Bolet (Liszt in Paris)
    Emil Gilels (K. 595 in Lille)
    Ivo Pogorelich (in London)
    Vladimir Horowitz (ditto)

    (more recently): Murray Perahia
    Leif-Ove Andsnes

    Left me cold: Pollini, Brendel, Schiff, Hewitt, and many others

    The one I most wish I had heard live: Moritz Rosenthal

  • Norman: I see that Brendel, Pollini, Hewitt and Schiff aren’t included on your list, despite regularly playing in London for many years. Nothing wrong with not liking them, it is afterall, how you feel about their performances. But I am curious about what you don’t get through their performances compared to the pianists on your list.

  • I would definitely add Horowitz. Also Shura Cherkassky, who gave two of the most memorable concerto performances I have ever heard: the Rubinstein 4th with Ashkenazy conducting (in London) and the Chopin E Minor with Jerzy Semkow in Atlanta.

  • Of the pianists that I have heard live and who made a difference for me were Rubinstein, Horowitz, Curzon, Richer and Pollini.

    Of those I so wished I had heard would include Dame Julia Myra Hess, Clara Haskil, Annie Fischer, Solomon, and Kempff, especially Kempff.

  • Richter, Gilels, Brendel, Argerich, Ashkenazy, Lupu, Sokolov, Kissin; possibly also LangLang and Trifonov
    In recordings: Michelangeli and Horowitz

  • I am enjoying this post very much, as well as some of the comments.
    This is my personal list of pianists whose live performances matter to me, and have deeply inspired me as a pianist:

    Andre Watts (the first pianist I heard live when I was 5)
    Radu Lupu
    Andreas Schiff
    and
    Grigory Sokolov

    I am so envious of the commentators who have heard masters like Gilels and Richter live! What a life-changing experience that must have been! 🙂

  • I heard one pianist I´ll never forget, he was Christopher Falzone, Hypnotisant !
    He always be on my list, (you may find his 128 audios-videos on https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxxlJqI5idRkrS72BfVTK8A?view_as=subscriber)
    This time, French poet, Jean-Louis Rambour, who looked at one of those rare stars – the prodigious pianist Christopher Falzone – whose dazzling crossing wrote “Tombeau de Christopher Falzone ” in honor of a young artist. Poem breathing breath of genius when life s engulfs in the creative bellows, until the last expiration, until the last aspiration.

    My list of greatly admirable pianists I hear and talk to:

    Martha Argerich
    Murey Peraia
    Grigori Sokolov
    Leon Fleisher
    Garry Grafmann
    Winston Choi
    Fransoise Thinat
    Yuja Wang

    Christopher Falzone
    Vladimir Horovitz
    Shura Cherkasski

  • Yes, as you said you never heard Horowitz! As great as the list of pianists you heard are, none on their best day will ever compare to a live Horowitz concert. Serkin once said after he heard the amazing Horowitz that he should give up performing. You also left out Van Cliburn!

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