Who are the best classical pianists of all time? We’ve discussed and debated and compiled our list of the greatest pianists featuring legendary virtuosos, including Sergei Rachmaninov, Vladimir Horowitz and Arthur Rubenstein, and today’s dazzling young stars, including Lang Lang, Yuja Wang and Benjamin Grosvenor. Let us know if we’ve missed your favourite in the comments section below.
Best Classical Pianists: Top 25 Greatest All Time
25: Yuja Wang (b.1987)
Born in Beijing, the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and has built a stratospheric international career on an often astounding and extremely versatile approach to pianistic virtuosity. Her breakthrough moment arrived when, aged 20, she replaced Martha Argerich at short notice in Boston. Her playing impresses with its brilliance, vigour, projection, lightness and exactitude; today she is celebrated from Beethoven solo sonatas to chamber music (she has performed and recorded in excellent partnership with the clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer). In 2019 she was the soloist for the world premiere of a fiendish new piano concerto by John Adams entitled Must The Devil Have All The Good Tunes?
24: Lang Lang (b.1982)
After a difficult early childhood as a piano prodigy (his story is told in his autobiography Playing With Flying Keys), the Chinese megastar Lang Lang studied in America at the Curtis Institute and was internationally famous by the age of 17. He has always been celebrated for his uniquely communicative approach to the piano and his unquenchable virtuosity. His embrace of popular culture and fashion has helped him to reach younger audiences beyond core classical fans; and over the years he has devoted much time and energy to encouraging young people worldwide to study the piano, notably starting the Lang Lang International Music Foundation to support music education. The so-called ‘Lang Lang effect’ has reportedly inspired millions of children to take up the piano.
23: Benjamin Grosvenor (b.1992)
Grosvenor, from Southend-on-Sea, reached the final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition as an extraordinary child prodigy aged just 11. Today he is forging an international career, achieving rave reviews around the world for his blend of brilliance, sensitivity, humour, insight and beauty of tone – a colourful cocktail that often finds him compared to the great pianists of the golden age. In 2011 he became the youngest soloist ever to have performed at the First Night of the Proms. With his fondness for unusual and neglected fine piano music, he often champions works by such composers as Medtner, Kapustin and Moszkowski, alongside the standard repertoire.
22: Daniil Trifonov (b.1991)
In 2010-11 this dazzling young Russian pianist hit the headlines with a double triumph, winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and the Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv within weeks of each other. His remarkable musicianship has since won him a worldwide following. His interpretations are vividly imagined, immensely sensitive and thrilling in their energy, putting him potentially in line with the finest of his forerunners: these qualities are shown to magnificent effect in repertoire such as Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes, the music of Chopin and that of Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Scriabin. Trifonov, one of the greatest pianists, is also a composer and has performed his own piano concerto to much acclaim.
21: Evgeny Kissin (b.1971)
Beginning his career as a child prodigy, Kissin stunned audiences both in his native Russia and in the West when, at the age of 12, he played and recorded the Chopin piano concertos with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. Since then he has enjoyed a remarkably seamless and consistent career at the very top of the pianistic tree. Among notable moments, he gave the first-ever solo recital at the BBC Promenade Concerts in London in 1997. He has also published a number of engaging compositions for piano and for string quartet, given recitations of poetry in Russian and Yiddish and written a volume of Yiddish stories, poems and translations. His pianism is notable for its poetic flow, its depth of tone quality and its sheer conceptual scale.
20: Alfred Brendel (b.1931)
Brendel, one of the best classical pianists, rose to fame gradually, his breakthrough arriving in a recital of Beethoven at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. While he has been primarily associated with Beethoven ever since, his repertoire extends from Bach to Schoenberg and his keen intellect and ready wit have found outlets in his distinctive approaches to such composers as Haydn, Liszt and the Lieder repertoire, in which he worked frequently with the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He is also a noted author of books on music and several volumes of poetry. Although Brendel has officially retired from concert life, he is still a familiar figure on stage, giving lectures on Schubert and Beethoven, among others.
19: Mitsuko Uchida (b.1948)
The child prodigy daughter of a Japanese diplomat, Uchida grew up largely in Vienna, where she gave her first recital aged 14. She has remained principally associated with the Viennese classics, renowned for her performances and recordings of Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven, as well as the works of the Second Viennese School’s Schoenberg, Berg and Webern – plus Schumann, Debussy and more. A highly expressive yet finely controlled performer, with a vibrant immediacy of touch and the capacity to create enveloping atmospheres in just a few notes, she has been showered with honours including the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society and, in 2009, a DBE.
18: Daniel Barenboim (b.1942)
Barenboim has always run his two careers as conductor and pianist concurrently, his expertise in each feeding into the other. His first piano teacher in his native Buenos Aires was his father, and he made his public debut aged seven. By 26 he had recorded the complete Beethoven sonatas. At the piano his musicianship is infused with the same intellectual rigour, feel for colour and communicative identification of emotion and sound that one finds in his conducting. His performances of series such as the complete Beethoven or Schubert piano sonatas and his conducting of Wagner’s Ring Cycle have proved historic occasions over the years.
17: Murray Perahia (b.1947)
Perahia, one of the greatest pianists, was born in the Bronx and won the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1972. His influences range from the twilit, poetic playing of his chief pianist mentor, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, to the dynamism of Horowitz, to whom he played on many occasions; he recalls that Horowitz told him: “If you want to be more than a virtuoso, first be a virtuoso”. A further crucial influence is Heinrich Schenker’s system of musical analysis, which Perahia applies to both the music he performs and his masterclass teaching, often with inspiring results. Ultimately, though, it is his poetic quality that has won him the public’s hearts: his lightness of touch, the beauty and intimacy of his tone and his unfailingly sensible and sensitive outlook. Recently he has been preparing a series of new editions of the Beethoven piano sonatas for Urtext Henle.
16: András Schiff (b.1953)
Schiff, one of the best classical pianists, has a special ‘grand master’ status among today’s leading pianists. Born in Budapest, the son of Holocaust survivors, he trained at the Franz Liszt Academy; he also studied in the UK with George Malcolm, a major influence on his playing of Bach, the composer with whom he has always been most associated. Blessed with extraordinary stamina and memory, he has a hearty appetite for presenting complete musical cycles, and has over the years performed the whole of Bach’s Clavierübung, all the Schubert sonatas, the chamber music of Brahms, a Bartók and Haydn series and the 32 Beethoven sonatas. Schiff has a rare purity of sound, a singing, airy tone that is instantly recognisable and a wide repertoire that extends to the present day; in recent years he has also recorded on the fortepiano.
15: Krystian Zimerman (b.1956)
When in 1975 he became the youngest pianist to have yet won the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, and the first Pole in many a year, Zimerman shot straight to international fame: he swept the board with his special blend of refulgent tone, attention to detail, supreme control and overwhelming intensity of emotion. He gives a limited number of concerts each year and has made relatively few recordings, though his existing ones remain catalogue favourites and often benchmarks. In 1988 he gave the world premiere of Lutosławski’s fiendishly complex Piano Concerto, which was written for him, and has since recorded it twice. His most recent recordings include Schubert’s two final sonatas and Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, ‘The Age of Anxiety’.
14: Martha Argerich (b.1941)
The extraordinary Martha Argerich, one of the greatest pianists, was born in Buenos Aires and made her debut aged 8, achieving international acclaim after winning the Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1965. She brings a fiery energy and deep sense of perspective to the pieces she performs; her virtuosity is unstinting, but it is her freshness and sheer passion for music that truly sets her apart. Argerich has something of a reputation for cancelling concerts, but has not been without her fair share of health issues, having been treated for a melanoma in 1990. Despite her classic solo recordings, she now eschews recitals in favour of concertos and chamber music, preferring to share the stage with friends.
13: Grigory Sokolov (b.1950)
Heir to the great Russian pianists of the Soviet era, especially Gilels, Sokolov’s rise to fame has been lengthy yet profound. He won the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow aged only 16, but his career was slow to achieve recognition outside the USSR as for many years he was not permitted to travel. Now he has acquired a cult following and is regarded by his fans as today’s greatest pianist. He has a kaleidoscopic variety of both repertoire and sonic imagination, with the ability to transfigure music from Couperin to Prokofiev and beyond with a superhuman quality – exceptionally delicate and clear at one extreme and, at the other, positively titanic. Most of his recordings are from live performances.
12: Radu Lupu (b. 1945)
Born in Romania in 1945, Radu Lupu is admired for interpretations of great wisdom, beauty and quietude. A student of the renowned pedagogue Heinrich Neuhaus in Moscow, he first came to prominence in the late 1960s, winning three prestigious contests within three years, culminating in the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1969. His recordings for Decca show him shining in the heartlands of his repertoire, the Austro-German classics such as Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Schubert and Schumann. An elusive character who avoids publicity, he is regarded as something of a maverick genius. He has recently retired from the concert platform.
11: Clara Haskil (1895-1960)
A pianist of immense warmth and unfailing inspiration, Clara Haskil, one of the best classical pianists, had a difficult life indeed. She was born in Bucharest and trained in Paris, where she won the Conservatoire’s premier prix aged 15. But her early career was blighted by progressive scoliosis of the spine; she was frequently ill and desperately nervous as a performer. Her repute only began to build in earnest after World War II. She was particularly celebrated for the Viennese classics, most of all Mozart. Charlie Chaplin, a friend, once declared: “In my lifetime I have met three geniuses; Professor Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Clara Haskil. I am not a trained musician but I can only say that her touch was exquisite, her expression wonderful, and her technique extraordinary.”
10: Myra Hess (1890-1965)
Dame Myra Hess became the doyenne of British pianists – and furthermore a national heroine when she spearheaded a series of daily lunchtime concerts in the National Gallery during World War II. Her popularity was strong in the US, too; she visited the country around 40 times, always by ship. Trained in London with Tobias Mathay, Hess was ferociously intelligent and determined, acquiring a reputation for absolute seriousness of purpose, a rich and transparent tone and a deep-thinking, generous and spiritual approach to music from Bach to late Brahms. Despite her somewhat austere outward image (she always wore black for her concerts), she possessed a razor-sharp wit, revealed in recorded interviews with the late John Amis and others. Her recorded legacy is not particularly large, as she disliked the process, but what there is is cherished by her admirers.
9: Glenn Gould (1932-1982)
Few pianists have ever achieved such a cult following as the elusive Canadian Glenn Gould, one of the greatest pianists. His extraordinary if quirky intelligence and imagination led him in unusual directions: after an impressive start to his performing career, he withdrew from the concert platform entirely and devoted himself to recording. While other artists might miss the effects of adrenaline away from a live audience, Gould saw the recording studio as the best way to exploit his musical perfectionism. Famed for his hypochondria, his low seat at the piano and his eclectic brilliance of thought, his fascinating character has attracted attention from numerous different film-makers. Though his repertoire was huge, as was the quantity of his recordings, it is for his Bach playing that he is best remembered today.
8: Emil Gilels (1916-1985)
Gilels’ special sound was all his own, deep and virtually orchestral in its range and richness. His fame began to rise when he won the Ysaÿe International Festival’s Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 1938, but soon his career plans had to be put on hold due to the outbreak of war. During the years of hostilities he gave the world premiere of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in Moscow in 1944. It was only in 1955 that he was able to make his US debut, becoming one of the first Soviet artists permitted to travel to the west. His repertoire was less varied than his compatriot Richter’s, centring on the Viennese classics. Although he was venerated for his playing of Brahms and Beethoven, one of his most celebrated recordings was of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces.
7: Dinu Lipatti (1917-1950)
The death of Dinu Lipatti at the age of only 33 robbed the world of one of its best-loved classical pianists. His playing displayed a profound sense of love for the music, a pure, focused, simple beauty which lets the works shine out unencumbered. Lipatti was born into a musical family in Bucharest; the great George Enescu was his godfather and he studied with Cortot, among others. Hampered first by the outbreak of World War II and then by the illness that was to kill him, Hodgkin’s disease, Lipatti forged a short career of about 15 years. Too ill in his last recital to play the final Chopin waltz, he replaced it with Myra Hess’s transcription of Bach’s ‘Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring’.
6: Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997)
Richter’s repertoire was vast and he offered interpretations to match: magnificent conceptions on an epic scale, with a focus on absolute fidelity to the composers’ intentions. He once said that he viewed the interpreter as really an executant, carrying out the composer’s intentions to the letter: “He doesn’t add anything that isn’t already in the work. If he is talented, he allows us to glimpse the truth of the work that is in itself a thing of genius and that is reflected in him. He shouldn’t dominate the music, but should dissolve into it.” Richter did not leave the USSR, but toured regularly in the west. His legacy includes an enormous discography, much of it from live performances.
5: Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)
Cortot, one of the greatest pianists, possessed one of the most beautiful, clear, singing tones of any classical pianist on record. Poetry seems embedded in the very sound of his freely eloquent style. The Swiss-born pianist’s sense of drama and narrative was perhaps heightened by his experience as a conductor and operatic repetiteur, not least at Cosima Wagner’s Bayreuth; and he conducted the Paris premiere of Götterdämmerung. He was famous, too, for his superlative piano trio with Jacques Thibaud (violin) and Pablo Casals (cello); and, perhaps paradoxically, for plentiful wrong notes (he reputedly disliked practising!). His interpretations, though, reach a height and breadth of expression that remains legendary.
4: Artur Schnabel (1882-1951)
Born in what is now Poland and raised in Vienna, Schnabel was a student of the great piano pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky. He established a top-level career as soloist and chamber musicians and from 1925 was a sought-after professor of piano in Berlin until he was forced to flee the Nazi regime in 1933, moving first to America and much later to Switzerland. His playing features an ideal balance of intellect and feeling, rigour and flair, and he is most celebrated for his interpretations of the Viennese classics. He was the first artist to record the complete cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas.
3: Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)
Rubinstein’s zest for life and irresistible charm permeated his music-making. Born in Poland, he was a gifted child, making his debut at seven and much encouraged by the violinist Joseph Joachim, friend to Brahms and Schumann. He spent World War I in London and moved to America shortly before World War II. Having relied on natural talent for most of his youth, he decided to reinvent his technique with a period of intensive practice in 1932. His Chopin playing is often regarded as unparalleled, and works written for him included some of Szymanowski’s piano music, Manuel de Falla’s Fantasia Bética and Stravinsky’s Trois Mouvements De Petrouchka (transcribed from the ballet score). His recordings bear witness to his exceptional vitality and uncomplicated, direct and genuine approach to music-making.
2: Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989)
There was only one Horowitz: a pianist with a positively Himalayan range of expression, a virtuoso flair and a feverish visionary quality unlike any before or since. Born in Kiev, Horowitz left the USSR in 1925 to study with Artur Schnabel in Berlin, but never returned. His US debut in 1928 propelled him straight to international stardom. Troubled by personal crises and allegedly episodes of addiction to anti-depressants and other substances, Horowitz had his ups and downs, and underwent electric shock therapy for depression in the 1940s. Few who encountered him and his playing could emerge unmoved or, indeed, unshaken by his towering artistry.
1: Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Considered by many the greatest pianist of them all, Rachmaninov was first and foremost a composer, hailed in Russia as the natural successor to Tchaikovsky, who championed him. But after fleeing the Revolution of 1917 he settled in Switzerland and later the US, making his living as a touring pianist, in which capacity he was in immense demand. His recordings are peerless examples of exquisite tone, poised musicality and deep wellsprings of feeling. His performances of his own works show that they are much maligned by interpreters who crash and emote through them; his interpretations, by contrast, are cool and controlled.
Piano Masters In Berlin
This 8CD box set features legendary pianists performing great piano concertos accompanied by Berlin’s world-famous orchestras: the Berlin Philharmonic and the Staatskapelle Berlin.
“[Argerich’] live recording with the BPO and Claudio Abbado surpass[es] even [her] earlier and legendary performances. Argerich has never sounded on better terms with the piano, more virtuoso yet engagingly human. Lyrical and insinuating, to a degree her performance seems to be made of the tumultuous elements themselves, of fire and ice, rain and sunshine..” noted Gramophone on Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (Argerich, Abbado).
Piano Masters In Berlin can be bought here.