The 31 Greatest Pianists of all time
Updated: 7 days ago
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.
Was 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. Can we name a "best pianist ever"? Not really, but we can talk about 31 of the greatest pianists of all times. Probably, all of them are the "number one" for somebody!
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791, Austria)
Mozart is 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, becoming one of the greatest pianists of all times.
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.
Below you will see a popular composition written by Mozart.
Piano sonata No.18, K.576 was written in 1789. King Friedrich Wilhelm II apparently commissioned Mozart to write a set of six ‘light’ and ‘easy’ sonatas for his daughter, Princess Friederike. However, this Sonata is actually known to be quite technicality demanding due to the counterpoint passages.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827, Germany)
Apart from being one of the most famous composers of his era, 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 among the greatest classical pianists, with high control of the classical style and absolute dominance of the form and expression; and considered one of the ancestors of romanticism.
Hammerklavier (no.29 in B Flat major) was said to be Beethoven's hardest sonata, it was almost deemed as unplayable until Liszt publicly performed it in 1836. Unfortunately, there are no videos to document this event, only a review of the performance from Hector Berlioz.
Franz Schubert (1797-1828, Austria)
Schubert's work reveals its special treat of melody and harmony - If we think, for example, in the Schubert impromptu op.90 n30.
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, a piano virtuoso, 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, becoming one of the most important composers of romanticism.
That is the reason he left behind such extensive work as a legacy, and it's considered one of the fathers of Romanticism.
Below you will find Mendelssohn's Fantasia Op.28, a beautiful composition released in 1834 although said to be written as early as 1829.
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.
Chopin's Nocturne Op.9 No.2 in E flat major was one of his most popular compositions and can be argued as one of the greatest piano pieces to this day.
It is so popular in fact that it would be difficult to find someone who has a passion for Classical Piano that has not heard of this stunning piece.
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 classical 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)
Alfred Cortot was a disciple of Chopin and an interpreter of Beethoven's work. He was identified as a teacher, pianist and director. At the age of 9, he moved to Paris and joined the conservatoire. At the age of sixteen Cortot made his debut with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, and in piano duet recitals with Edouard Risler playing arrangements of Wagner.
He stood out for free interpretations, concentrating on the music as a finalised piece and not on precision and detail. At the same time, we should appreciate he was technically impeccable, definitely one of the most famous pianists of the world, who marked a turning point in music education especially after the creation of "The rational principles of piano technique” which he wrote in 1928 that later changed the way the teachers would direct their lessons.
As a musician living in the Second World War, Cortot had argued that musicians should not take part in the compulsory work service introduced by Hitler, as it might compromise their future musical career. He had also called for musical prisoners to be able to join German orchestras. In May 1943 he had even succeeded in liberating twenty musician prisoners where his work then extended to fight in favour of Jewish musicians.
Cortot co-founded one of Europe’s most famous chamber groups in 1905 and later toured the world as a pianist, playing thousands of concerts, including all five Beethoven concertos at Carnegie Hall and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the composer present.
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 became a famous piano player.
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 in 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 and best piano players 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. He emigrated to the USA with his family, running away from the Russian revolution.
Cherkassky then continued his piano studies, mainly with Josef Hoffman. During his career, he travelled around the world, giving concerts in the most important capital cities of Europe. He also participated in the recordings for movie's soundtracks, such as the Appassionata of Beethoven or the Three pieces of Petroushka of Stravinsky. Shura played the piano until the last years of his life, and was recognised as one of the best pianists of his epoque.
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 is considered among the great pianists of the 20th century. He was born into an ukranian 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. His piano studies begun when I was 7 years old and because of his remarkable learning skills, whitin a few months of training he managed to play all three volumes of Loeschhorn's studies, and soon afterwards Clementi and Mozart sonatinas.
After his first live performance at age 12, he was accepted to the Odessa conservatory in is natal town, under the tutelage of Bertha Reingbald. She allowed him to give public concerts and thanks to her teachings, Emil's cultural interests expanded into literature and history. However, Reingbald was careful not to overload her student with excessive live performances. He competed in the All-Ukrainian Competition and won a scholarship from the jury, even though he was below the age limit to participate.
In 1936, he participated in his first international competition, the International Vienna Music Academy Competition, obtaining the second place award. Two years later, he won the Ysaÿe International Festival in Brussels-known as Queen Elisabeth Competition nowadays-.
Gilels was one of the first Soviet artists allowed to travel and give concerts in the West. His American debut was in October 1955 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and his British debut, was in 1952 at the Royal Albert Hall. Gilels made his Salzburg Festival debut in 1969 with a piano recital of Weber, Prokofiev and Beethoven at the Mozarteum, followed by a performance of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto with George Szell and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Sergei Rachmaninoff considered Gilels as his piano successor and sent him his medal and diploma. This medal, engraved with Anton Rubinstein's profile, and the diploma were once gave to Rachmaninoff as a symbol of his succession from Rubinstein, and Rachmaninoff himself added Gilels's name to the document.
Gilels had a repertoire ranging from baroque to late Romantic and 20th century classical composers. His interpretations of Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann formed the core of it, but he also played exquisitely 20th-century composers such as Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev.
At his death in 1985 at age 68, Gilels was working on a studio recording of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas, leaving five unrecorded. His version of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata won a Gramophone Award in 1984.
In an interview late in his career, Gilels said: “When I was a child, it was a dream to be able to make it to this point, to be an acclaimed, successful artist. If I am reincarnated, I would like to do it all again, only better.”
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, coming from a "musical family", he started piano as a student of his mom, to later enter in the Bucharest Conservatory. Also, he started performing for charitable purposes. Lipatti is well-known for his interpretations of Chopin, Mozart and Bach, and also great recordings of Grieg, Ravel or Liszt. Althought he lived a short life, his analytical knowledge and a particular emotional interiority made him a cult musician, and very admired by the next generations.
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. This fantastic Spanish pianist is considered one of the best pianists of the 20th century. She is recognized especially for her performances of Mozart and Spanish repertoire, like Albeniz or Granados.
Nevertheless, it was at the age of 20, when she started to dedicate professionally to the piano. 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.
She met greatest pianists of her time, such as Arthur Rubinstein or Alfred Cortot. Also, she won as the "Principe de Asturias" and four "Grammys" among other prizes during her pianistic career.
Glenn Gould (1932-1982, Canada)
He is recognized as one of the most famous piano players 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)
Martha Argerich stands out among the best pianists of the 20th century. Her ancestry comes from a Spanish and Ukrainian Jewish family settled in Argentina. She is definitely one of the best pianists alive.
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. She could be considered one of the best pianist in the world alive
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.
Radu Lupu (Romania, 1945)
Radu Lupu is a sensational Romanian pianist who began his lessons at age 6 and made his public debut in 1957 (age 12) in a concert featuring his own compositions. At the age of 16, in 1961, he was awarded a scholarship to the Moscow P.I. Tchaikovsky State Conservatory. From 1966 to 1969, he won first prizes of three of the world's most prestigious piano competitions: the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (1966), the George Enescu International Piano Competition (1967), and the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition (1969). These victories launched Lupu's international career and he has appeared with all of the major orchestras and at all of the major festivals and music capitals of the world.
Unusually, Lupu uses a regular, straight-backed chair at the piano as opposed to a standard piano bench. He told Clavier in 1981 that while sitting on a bench he tended to lean forward, raise his shoulders, become impossibly stiff and develop pains all over. He also said that he practised with a chair at home and found it natural for him.
In the span of 23 years, Lupu made over 20 recordings for Decca Records including works from Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and many more.
Unfortunately, now 73, Lupu last recorded in the mid-1990s, is absent from social media and refuses to be interviewed. His health has been in decline; in the last two years and he has cancelled appearances with increased frequency. Though his live concert appearances are coming to an end, his intellectual approach to his piano repertoire can still be enjoyed with his extensive list of amazing recordings.
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.
When he was 7 years old, Gelber suffered from polio, a disease that left him with serious mobility difficulties. During this situation, he continued his piano studies even though he could not stand up: he asked his parents to remove the pedals from a piano to fit under the bed. This petition demonstrates powerful willpower, a trait that has mobilized him in his successful career over the years.
He went to Paris to continue his piano studies, with the famous pianists and 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.
In the book "Opus Gelber" released in 2019, the argentine writter and journalist Leila Guerriero explores Gelber's eccentric life, after a series of profound conversations with the artist. Due to the sequelae caused by polio, he goes everywhere with an attendant who packs his bags, drives if he needs to move by road, takes him literally to the piano when a concert is about to start and picks him up at the end.
But there is much more to him than a great story of resilience: in his conversations with Guerrero he delves into his love affairs with men and the sexual voracity that characterizes him, breaking taboos on sexuality and disability. He mischievously points out in the interview that his assistants were sometimes more than just assistants; to later make a detailed account of all the men he loved, from the first to his current partner, who lives with him.
Besides his outstanding musical skills -that make him stand as one of the best pianist of his generation and one of the top hundred of the century-, his habit of wearing a lot of makeup, hairpieces and women's perfumes, his taste for cosmetic surgeries and the constant flaunting that he makes of his friendships with rich and aristocratic personalities, such as the Duchess of Orleans, could never make him go unnoticed.
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 (Evgeny Kissin 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 pianist 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 that is considered one of the best piano players in the world today, and with the recognition of his colleagues, conductors and composers. Lang Lang is one of the most acclaimed Chinese pianist and musicians by the public and one of the new faces of the classical repertoire.
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.
Ps. What about Bach?
He was one of the greatest musicians of all time! Yes, we can’t leave him out, he truly was mesmerising.
However, technically he wasn’t a pianist. If we are being specific with the musical timeline, the piano wasn’t invented in the Baroque period, meaning that Bach only performed on a Harpsichord. So although he may have been one of the best musicians and arguably the best Harpsichord player, we weren’t able to add him to this list purely due to the fact that he had never played on a piano before, which is difficult to comprehend considering we, as classical musicians, all have undoubtedly played a composition written by Bach on a completely different instrument that he was ever able to imagine.