10 best pianists: the greatest of all time

22.12.2021 Ben Maloney Piano

If you play the piano, then you’re a member of a global community of tens of millions of people. Perhaps even hundreds of millions. 

From casual players to professional concert pianists, all these people are united by one of the most important musical contraptions ever invented: the piano. Climbing to the top of this pile is a feat of unimaginable proportions. Yet many have done just that. 

In this article, we’re looking at some of these remarkable people. Some conquered the finest piano music ever written. Many composed those very same works - or even improvised their masterpieces. Each has left their mark on the history of the piano. 

We’re exploring ten inspirational figures, and if reading about them inspires you, then you can get playing straight away with nkoda’s collection of piano sheet music.
 

The greatest pianists of all time
 

  1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  2. Clara Schumann
  3. Oscar Peterson
  4. Mitsuko Uchida
  5. Franz Liszt
  6. Glenn Gould
  7. Alice Coltrane
  8. Ludwig van Beethoven
  9. Martha Argerich
  10. Sergei Rachmaninoff

1. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

It seems fitting to start with Mozart. He’s one of the first pianists in the history of the instrument to really stand out as a virtuoso, and he was already making a name for himself as a piano prodigy at the age of six.

Like many composer-pianists, Mozart’s relationship with the piano had two sides to it. On the one hand he was one of the most prolific and influential writers of piano music ever. On the other he was an awe-inspiring performer of that same music. In all, he wrote 18 sonatas, 27 concertos, and plenty more works for the piano in other genres.

Piano music was never the same after Mozart’s innovations, and it was his unique understanding of the instrument that made these developments possible. Discover some of his most revolutionary repertoire, for piano and beyond, in this playlist.

2. Clara Schumann

Classical music in the mid-1800s was a world dominated by men. And yet, despite the challenges she faced as a woman moving in this scene, Clara Schumann became one of the finest and most admired piano-players of the century. 

Touring Europe as a child prodigy, her reputation grew quickly. She consolidated her status in Vienna in the 1930s where she stunned one audience after another. The wife of composer Robert Schumann and a close friend of Johannes Brahms, she also premiered many of their works, some of which are the most important piano pieces of the era.

She too was a composer as well as a pianist. Her outstanding skill allowed her to create music for the instrument that still pushes pianists to the very limits of their ability. Her music can also be found on nkoda. The Piano Concerto in A minor captures the very best of what her music has to offer.

3. Oscar Peterson

Oscar Peterson is widely considered one of the best jazz pianists of all time. Many critics and historians place him at the top of that list. His extraordinary playing features on over 200 recordings made between the 1940s and the 2000s.

Improvisation is at the heart of jazz, and Peterson is at his most impressive when he’s improvising. His style is marked by incredible speed and dexterity, and richness of ideas. By the time you’ve processed what you’ve heard him play, he’s already two phrases ahead - and don’t forget he’s making it up as he goes along. It’s impossible to keep up. 

In jazz, it’s harder to separate composition and performance - for some, improvisation is just a kind of instantaneous composition. But however it came about, much of the music Peterson played and recorded was his own creation, which makes him yet another versatile master of his instrument.

4. Mitsuko Uchida

 

Born in Japan, Mitsuko Uchida moved to Vienna at the age of 12. There in one of the great cities of classical music history she studied piano at the Academy of Music. One of her tutors here was Wilhelm Kempff, himself a great pianist of the 20th century. Sixty years later, she too has secured her legacy as one of the greatest of all time.

Gaining a name for herself in the 1970s, there are few if any achievements as a pianist that have eluded her. She’s conquered the repertoire, received countless accolades and awards, and collaborated with the world’s greatest conductors and orchestras. In the fiercely competitive world of contemporary piano-playing, she’s risen to the very top. 

When it comes to playing the works of Mozart and Schubert in particular, she’s unrivalled. She’s actually recorded all of Mozart’s piano concertos twice, and in 1989 she won a Gramophone Award for her recording of the composer’s complete sonatas. If you’re interested in these works, Uchida’s interpretations are the ones to listen to. 

5. Franz Liszt

According to many, Franz Liszt is the best pianist of all time. In the 1840s, he toured Europe widely and relentlessly. He captivated his audiences with his incredible skill and showmanship, and convinced them that he represented the pinnacle of piano-playing. 

Liszt’s popularity was so intense that his listeners would react hysterically to his playing - this phenomenon was famously coined as ‘Lisztomania’. This kind of reaction among fans is familiar to us now, but it was unprecedented in the 19th century. It’s earned Liszt the title of history’s very first celebrity.

Philanthropist and giver of free piano lessons, Liszt was also a composer whose music displayed some groundbreaking harmonic and melodic innovations. He composed prolifically for the piano, and it’s this repertoire that offers us the clearest glimpse of his unparalleled ability.

6. Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould was a very special pianist who scores particularly highly when it comes to personality. He claimed to hardly ever practice, he could instantly memorise music, and he dismissed swathes of core Romantic piano repertoire outright. Gould was also a writer whose texts gave him an outlet for some of his more off-the-wall views on music.  

It’s impossible to assess Gould’s legacy without talking about Bach. Gould is definitely most celebrated for his interpretations of the composer’s keyboard works, and his two recordings of the Goldberg Variations are touchstones for any pianist taking on Bach. 

Notoriously difficult to work with, Gould was a kind of rock star of the classical world. When performing, he always insisted on sitting in the same chair, and demanded that the room temperature be almost uncomfortably warm. Gould would also audibly hum music as he played it. As you can expect, this was a nightmare for recording engineers. 

7. Alice Coltrane

 

Alice Coltrane was a truly dynamic musician. An accomplished composer and harpist, she was also a fantastic pianist who was at the forefront of major artistic shifts in jazz. She established herself as one of the most eminent women in the genre. 

Coltrane was gigging in New York when she met her husband-to-be, John Coltrane, in 1963. They soon embarked on a brief but potent musical journey that bore some of the most progressive jazz recordings of the era. John died in 1967 but Alice continued to release highly original work grounded on her keyboard skills right up to 2004.

Coltrane’s art was charged by her vibrant spirituality. This important dimension of her life opened her up to broader musical and cultural influences, helping her to hone a unique style of piano-playing that reflected the fusion of these diverse ingredients. 

8. Ludwig van Beethoven

Beethoven’s huge and timeless achievements as a composer no doubt overshadow his accomplishments as a pianist. In 1792 he moved to Vienna, the city where he would make composing history. But he first established himself there as a pianist. 

After his arrival, word of a gifted young German player quickly spread. And his reputation grew. Beethoven performed frequently at recitals where he left a deep and profound impression on his audience members. His classical improvisations - a staple of concert programs at the time - were said to be particularly impressive.

Once again, ability preceded innovation. If it weren’t for Beethoven’s proficiency at the keyboard, then the trailblazing compositional techniques for the piano that he developed would not have come about. See them for yourself on nkoda - the piano sonatas are a good place to start.  

9. Martha Argerich

Another legendary 20th-century pianist, Martha Argerich is also often acclaimed as one of the greatest of all time. Since 1965, when she won the International Chopin Piano Competition, she’s never been out of contention.

Argerich notably prefers performing onstage with other musicians to giving solo recitals. As a result, she frequently plays concertos and chamber works, giving her performing repertoire a distinctive character. Argerich is also a player that has always shunned the limelight, so when she does perform the world really pays attention. 

President of the International Piano Academy Lake Como, Argerich is constantly looking to the future of piano-playing by nurturing the talent of young pianists. There’s every chance that someday one of them will appear on another list of the great players of all time.

10. Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff is one of the definitive composer-pianists. He’s earned this status largely due to a combination of two factors. On the one hand, there’s his sharp compositional focus on the piano. One the other, there’s his remarkable virtuosity.

Confidence in Rachmaninoff’s playing ability is deep because he was luckily born late enough for his playing to be recorded. These recordings might seem low-quality to modern ears, but they reveal Rachmaninoff to be a musician that could not only write challenging music for piano, but also play it with incredible clarity and precision.

Helping Rachmaninoff to develop his admired technique were his famously large hands. They allowed him to play and articulate large chords with ease - and to write passages that are tough for less fortunate pianists to handle. At the very heart of his body of work are his piano concertos, which you can find on nkoda.

Your next steps for piano music

 

On nkoda you can discover the work that through composition or performance has established many of these individuals among the greatest pianists of all time.

Remember that a selection of ten is a compact one. Alfred BrendelRay Charles, Annie Fischer, Myra Hess, Vladimir Horowitz, Billy JoelElton John, Lang Lang, Arthur Rubinstein... The list of honourable mentions goes on, and all its players are just as worthy of discovery. Find the pianists whose style resonates with you the most.

If you’re feeling motivated to improve your own playing, then this article will have done its job. Familiarising yourself with piano repertoire through the app will support you in that, as will listening to some of the works that have been recorded by the players discussed here.

Admittedly, nothing beats practice (unless you’re Glenn Gould). But spending time getting to know what it takes to play great piano music really well will massively boost your progress as a pianist and help you to emulate these ten legends of the keyboard. Soon you’ll be able to polish off Beethoven sonatas and other hard piano pieces like it’s nothing.

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