Ten greatest

Limelight magazine supposedly polled “modern day masters” of the piano, to identify the ten greatest pianists of all time.

Here’s their list of ten:

1. Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

2. Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989)

3. Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997)

4. Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)

5. Emil Gilels (1916-1985)

6. Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)

7. Glenn Gould (1932-1982)

8. Alfred Brendel (b1931)

9. Wilhelm Kempff (1895 – 1991)

10. Artur Schnabel (1882-1951)

There are at least a few names conspicuous for their absence.  I won’t argue with those “modern day masters”, whoever they might be.  Let me simply suggest a few more names.  Here are ten names to consider.  Whether any of them are pianists worthy to displace any of the ten from this other list, I leave to you.

  1. ChopinFrederic Chopin: Maybe he’s not the greatest in history, but it seems reasonable to assume that he was a good pianist, when he was able to play most if not all of his own compositions: which aren’t exactly chopped liver.
  2. Robert Schumann: again we’re speaking of a pianist who wrote challenging music.  I won’t put Clara Schumann on this list, even though it may be that she was a better pianist than Robert.   There are other great composers who were reputed to be fine pianists, such as  Felix Mendelssohn and Georges Bizet who likely could make this list.  But nevermind them, as the evidence is sketchy.
  3. But chief among all these composers must surely be Franz Liszt, the prototype of the virtuoso.   We can only speculate on his abilities from what he gave us in his transcriptions.  But that’s already solid evidence of great technique, possibly the greatest pianist of all time, and strangely absent from the Limelight list.
  4. By the same logic as #3, we’d have to also admit Ferrucio Busoni may have been an even more impressive pianist than Liszt, again considering the evidence of his transcriptions.
  5. While he may not have been a successful concert pianist, Claude Debussy was one of a kind, a performer who played not only his own music but reductions of Wagner operas (where Debussy would also sing the vocal lines).
  6. And while we’re talking about composers who were outside the usual concert realm, what about George Gershwin?
  7. And here’s another pianist without a career as a concert pianist, namely Leonard Bernstein.  Why be a pianist when you’re one of the greatest composers.
  8. As we list pianist-composers (having mentioned Liszt, but also with Rachmaninoff at the top of Limelight’s list) we might have to include Sergei Prokofiev. 
  9. Dimitri Shostakovich? Another great composer who was a fabulous piano player
  10. And there’s also Bela Bartok

And i left Gottschalk and Grainger off the list, even though i hear Gottschalk played like a god, and Grainger?  i love his music.

Having looked at great composers of the last century, I will add a few great pianists from the last hundred years who somehow failed to get enough votes from the “Modern Masters”.

  • Daniel Barenboim
  • Solomon
  • Walter Gieseking
  • Leon Fleischer
  • Maurizio Pollini
  • Alexis Weissenberg
  • Lazar Berman
  • Martha Argerich

At what age does a piano player reach their peak?   Whatever one understands by words such as “greatest pianist”, one has to admit that most abilities fade in time.  Chess masters peak somewhere around 35 years of age.  Given the physical component of pianism, it’s hard to believe that a great pianist plays better in their 60s than they played in their youth.  While it’s certainly true that reputation gets you the opportunity to be heard, is the piano playing as good when one is aging? I’d have to think not, speaking as someone whose eyes can’t sight-read as well now as they once did, who doesn’t have the same stamina to sit at a piano that i once had.

I put that out there, completely fascinated by two young pianists.  While reputation takes time to acquire, I am inclined to believe that maybe these two young pianists deserve to be considered among the greatest pianists currently playing on this planet, if not among the greatest ever.  Each of them has taken an unorthodox approach to building fame.

The two?  Valentina Lisitsa and Stewart Goodyear.  Both are young.

  • Valentina Lisitsa has become known through performances on youtube.  Look at this one for example, and notice her fluid technique.  She has been gaining fame through youtube rather than the usual pathways for classical musicians.   Her technique is so relaxed, she doesn’t seem to be working at all….wow(!)
  • Stewart Goodyear?  I’ve been writing about him so much lately that I worry i am sounding like the proverbial broken record.  He has the passion of Artur Schnabel, but without any of the wrong notes.

And of course there are other pianists coming up.  In a NY Times article i cited a few weeks ago, Anthony Tommasini remarked that virtuosi are becoming a dime a dozen. Skillsets improve with each generation, so that perhaps brilliance is becoming so common that we don’t appreciate it anymore.  Perhaps we’re blasé about talent.

What lies ahead?

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3 Responses to Ten greatest

  1. John says:

    The philosopher John Rawls makes the claim that individual’s don’t own their abilities. These talents are so wrapped up in culture, that individuals become something more like conduits for the talent rather than the talent itself, or something like that. Anyway, it makes some sense to speak about talent this way in our culture because of the sheer proliferation of schools, academies, scholarships, teachers and other opportunities at such a high level that have never, I would argue, been available to previous generations.

  2. Pingback: TSO controversy: it’s not about the music anymore | barczablog

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