The 31 Greatest Pianists of all time
Updated: Sep 13
The history of the piano is the result of the development of different instruments, starting with the Zither (originally from Africa and Southeast Asia in 3000 BC) and the Monochord. Its evolution continued through other kinds of instruments, all with the same mechanical system between strings and fingers.
The Italian Bartolomeo Cristófori, who around 1700, gave the piano its final shape, with the number of 88 keys.
From this point, we can start talking about the history of the piano itself, the various and great pianists (and composers) that were born as a result of this event.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, Austria)
It's considered one of the first great piano masters. He was recognized for his musical talent and his compositional ability since he was a child.
He started as an interpreter, but soon, he was noted for his incredible musical ear.
As an author, he was very productive. He composed from sonatas, symphonies, chamber music to concerts and operas, all characterized by expressive emotions and complex textures.
He stood out within classicism and was one of the most influential musicians in his times and along with the history.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827, Germany)
Beethoven began to play the piano because of his father, who was very strict and ruled the boy to high suffering during classes. He performed his first concert being still a child. Beethoven was innovative and talented, but also very hard-working.
During his adulthood, he had to fight deafness, and even that, didn't stop him from composing some of his most important pieces, in the last ten years of his life.
A recognized expression he used to say: "Music comes to me more easily than words."
He is identified as one of the greatest composers in history, with high control of the classical style and absolute dominance of the form and expression; and considered one of the ancestors of romanticism.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828, Austria)
Schubert's work reveals its special treat of melody and harmony.
He is known as one of the last great classical composers and one of the precursors of Romanticism.
Even though he was distinguished as a violinist, organist and singer, the piano allowed him more numerous resources for the composition.
He left behind 600 compositions ( lieders), 21 sonatas, 7 masses and 9 symphonies.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847, Germany)
He was a child prodigy, and was nicknamed the "Mozart of the 19th century."
When he turned 9, he made his first stage appearance; and at the age of 10, he started composing.
That is the reason he left behind such extensive work as a legacy, and it's considered one of the fathers of Romanticism.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849, Poland)
Chopin twisted the piano within romantic music with his works.
We could describe him as refined, detailed, with perfect technique and unique harmonic elaboration.
He started to surprise society when he was only six years because of his manner of exploding the piano sources, and for his tremendous and complex compositions. In 1849, he died, and his body was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
However, his heart was placed in a church in Warsaw, near his birthplace.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856, Germany)
He left his law studies to focus on his piano career. Unfortunately, even though he was talented and virtuous, his career ended because of an injury on his hand.
He married Clara, who was a great pianist and prodigy musician.
From that fact he focused entirely on the composition, becoming one of the best composers for piano along with the history.
Franz Liszt (1811-1886, Austria; Austro-Hungarian)
Franz had an excellent ability for interpretation, and his companions considered him as one of the best pianists of his time.
Nevertheless, at the age of 36, he abandoned the piano, and he rarely performed in public again.
From that point, he dedicated all his time to directing, teaching and composing, leaving as a legacy, more than 350 works.
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943, Russia)
Rachmaninov is considered one of the greatest pianists of his generation, and one of the last great romantic composers. He had huge hands, and that allowed him to seize the piano quickly.
He studied Liszt's and Tchaikovsky's music and emerged for his technical ability when performing.
Although, it's his works that made him become one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century
Alfred Cortot (1877-1962, Switzerland)
Cortot was a disciple of Chopin and an interpreter of Beethoven's work. He was identified as a teacher, pianist and director.
Alfred created "The rational principles of piano technique". This book changed the way the teachers would direct their lessons. (1928)
He stood out for free interpretations, concentrating on the final completed work and not in the most precise and detailed musical work. At the same time, we should appreciate he was technically impeccable.
Artur Schnabel (1882-1951, Austria)
Schnable was an admirer of Beethoven, and he based a large part of his career on making the music of Ludwig; recording all his complete works.
Schnabel was very virtuous but without attraction. It was when he studied with Teodor Leschetizky, that his career changed utterly. Teodor changed his way of seeing himself, not as a pianist but as a musician.
Schnabel ended up leaving a legacy of more than fifty compositions.
Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982, Poland)
Arthur started to play the piano when he was only 3 years old. At the age of 17, he debuted in Paris, which later would be his place of residence. Eight years later he would move to London, where he succeeded.
After that, he did many performances around the United States, South America, and Europe.
Rubinstein lived with the theory that his existence was fortunate and he should enjoy it, and that made him -along with his marvellous sound and virtuous- , a bright and humanist person.
Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991, Germany)
Kempff was one of the most prominent talents of his time. He started at the age of nine and developed high skills in piano, among composition and pedagogy.
He's known for his lucid, refined style, structural accuracy, and a clear lyrical sound.
As a legacy, he left behind four operas, chamber music, orchestral works and two symphonies. Kempff had a prosperous recording career, which he worked in until around his 80's
Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989, Ukraine)
Horowitz had a unique sound: the way he'd handled the tones and dynamics led him to be one of the best pianists along with the history.
He had a particular technique, with a slightly suggested hand placement in which he wouldn't almost move his body.
Claudio Arrau (1903-1991, Chile)
Arrau started to learn piano because of his mother. When he turned 5 years old, he gave his first performance.
Claudio Arrau is considered one of the first greatest pianists in South America, and an excellent performer of the classical and romantic repertoire. Also, he is recognized for his vanguard contemporary works.
Shura Cherkassky (1911-1995, Ukraine - America)
Cherkassky can be regarded as one of the last representatives of the virtuosity-romantic school.
He claimed that above the technique is the feeling of the artist, developing his own sensitive and temperamental style.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976, United Kingdom)
He commenced to play the piano at a very young age, and he was very disciplined and talented. Later he would work as a composer to endure.
He was highly recognized and received the nobility title in England. One of his phrases that could describe his career best is: "Learning is like rowing against the course: as soon as you stop, you go backwards".
Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997, Russia)
Richter is considered one of the great pianists of the century XX, whose style is described as versatile, profound and elaborate. His father was his first teacher, and he already demonstrated his immense talent at the age of 8.
Despite his courage, he was not a perfect musician but could miss many notes when he was not having a good day. However, he's considered the spirit of music to prevail overall.
Emil Gilels (1916-1985, Russia)
Gilels was born in a family of musicians, that's why his musical training was incredibly strict. He accepted this fact as a way to improve his technique until it would become perfect.
These episodes made him one of the most famous pianists of the 20th century.
Dinu Lipatti (1917-1950, Romania)
Known for his refined style, Lipatti went through World War II and had leukaemia, but that didn't stop him from becoming a transcendent influence for the new generation of pianists.
He began his career at the age of 4, performing for charitable purposes. His analytical knowledge and a particular emotional interiority made him a cult musician.
Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli (1920-1995, Italy)
His hesitation to reveal an aspect of his private life made him a mysterious being whose only public facet was his musical talent.
Benedetti was distinguished for his detail-oriented style, but also his clarity, his rich tone, his palette of colours and shades.
He also had an irreverence that led him to threatening situations, such as cancel concerts shortly before they began.
Giorgy Cziffra (1921-1994, Hungary)
Of humble roots, he started his music career when he turned 5. Since then, he was self-taught and obtained an extraordinary ability for improvisation. This made him gain his style to the pieces, and also a lot of rejection from purist pianists.
Although he didn't have a stable career, due to his illness, WWII or many injures in his hands; he managed to become an international star. He experimented into different genres, such as Classical, Folkloric and even Jazz.
Alicia de Larrocha (1923-2009, Spain)
Winner of the highest artistic awards in her country, de Larrocha began to play the piano when she was 3.
Nevertheless, it was at the age of 20, when she started to dedicate professionally to the piano. However, she was the preferred interpreter of two of the greatest Spanish composers: Isaac Albéniz and Enrique Granados. Her repertoire was broad in quality and genres.
Glenn Gould (1932-1982, Canada)
He is recognized as the interpreter of Johann Sebastian Bach's work, but his fame lies in the peculiarity of his personality.
Gould suffered an injury as a child, which incited his father to build him a height-adjustable chair, which he used very close to the ground (hunching over the keys), and which he did not abandon for the rest of his life.
Besides, Gould considered the concerts with the public as "the force of evil". This consideration led him to abandon the performances for many years.
He retired from the stage at 34 but left an extensive legacy of studio recordings.
Martha Argerich (Buenos Aires, Argentina 1941)
Her ancestry comes from a Spanish and Ukrainian Jewish family settled in Argentina.
In 1945, when she was only four years old, she gave her first public piano recital at the Astral Theater.
When she turned seven, she began to study piano with Vicente Scaramuzza. Martha Argerich is highly valued for her interpretation of the virtuous piano scores of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Her extensive repertoire includes Bach and Bartok, Beethoven and Messiaen, as well as Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Debussy, Ravel and many more. Chamber music is also an essential field in her musical career.
She often performs and makes recordings with Nelson Freire, Alexandre Rabinovitch, Mischa Maisky, Gidon Kremer or Daniel Barenboim.
Among her most recent recordings are Mozart Concertos K466 and K503 recorded with the Orchestra Mozart and Claudio Abbado and a duet recital with Daniel Barenboim released by Deutsche Grammophon.
Bruno Leonardo Gelber (Buenos Aires, Argentina 1941)
He was born in a musical family -his father being a violinist in the orchestra of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires and his mother a piano teacher- and so he developed in his childhood.
His father greatly influenced his determination to pursue a musical career. That is the reason why he began to study piano at the age of three years old, and at the age of five, he would perform sonatas and concerts.
From the age of six and for a decade, he was a student of Vincenzo Scaramuzza.
Gelber made his public debut at the age of ten, performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3, under the direction of his teacher.
When he turned 14, he made his debut at the Teatro Colón with the piano concerto by Robert Schumann, under the direction of Lorin Maazel.
He went to Paris to continue his piano studies, with the famous pedagogue Marguerite Long.
In 1959, at the age of 18, his international debut took place in Munich (Germany), which was a great success.
He is considered to be an exceptionally qualified player in Beethoven's repertoire for piano, having recorded a wide range of his piano sonatas. The thoughts stand as Gelber being one of the best pianists of his generation and as one of the top hundred of the century.
Daniel Barenboim (Argentina, 1942)
Barenboim is well known for his art at the piano as for his quality as a conductor.
Daniel made his debut at the age of 7, when he gave his first concert and moved the interest of the leading academies in the area.
He was mentored by Arthur Rubinstein, conducted great orchestras around the world, and won six Grammy Awards. For him, music is the best instrument to build connections between people.
Krystian Zimerman (Poland, 1956)
He began to play the piano from a young age, as the result of coming from a traditional and musical family.
A rebel of modernity and a critic of new technologies, he would be capable of stopping a concert because of the sound of a mobile phone.
Talented like few others in his generation, he was the winner of most of the competitions in which he participated as a kid. In 1975 he won the International Contest of Piano Frédéric Chopin, in Varsovia.
Yevgueni Kisin (EvgenyKissin Russia, 1971)
He was a child prodigy who shocked the world when he performed two Chopin Concertos for Piano and Orchestra at the age of 13.
Kisin is considered one of the best pianists in the world; he is characterized by a virtuous playing style and an individual capability to master intricate technical traps with simplicity.
Lang Lang (China, 1982)
He is another one of the best pianists of our times, with world fame, and the recognition of his colleagues, conductors and composers. Lang Lang is one of the most acclaimed musicians by the public and one of the new faces of the classical repertoire.
(Bis! Our 31st) Vicente Scaramuzza (1885-1968)
The great merit of Scaramuzza -more than his recognition as a pianist- was that he intellectualized the piano technique, based on anatomical and physiological bases, the playing of the piano.
It is incredible how he used realistic images such as not pushing the key with the arm but taking it with a grasping movement, always utilising the principle lever and many etc.
He taught some of the greatest pianists that we appreciated in this list, such as Martha Argerich or Bruno Gelber.