The 13 GREATEST LIVING CLASSICAL PIANISTS (A Bakers Dozen)

In the scope of evaluating some of the greatest living classical pianists today, an individual’s inherent musicality, personal subjectivity, learning and experience will ultimately be the final arbiter as to the groups of particular musicians we cherish the most.  One’s sense of how a piece of music should be played, interpreted and ultimately performed will obviously be our utmost test when compiling a list of personal preferences such as this.  So then, lets have some fun exploring my analysis of the 13 greatest living classical pianists.

(POST UPDATED – 6/25/18)

Each pianist listed below quite naturally brings his own particular expertise, style, experience and artistic judgement in the way they interpret the brilliance of a particular composers works. Maybe more important to the experienced listener is how well a pianist fulfills your own personal expectations of how a piece of music should be performed.

Of course, not everyone will agree with my assessments below but that is the fun and ultimate point of an essay such as this–bringing forth a diverse, subjective and thoughtful piece that will hopefully stir your curiosity, thoughts and ideas on the virtuosity todays best living classical pianists.

Mind you, this list pertains to 13 distinguished artists who are alive, well and in most cases, still performing as of today. (in no particular order of subjective preference; unless you are doing a poll, I feel it mandatory to say that a list of this type could not and should not be ranked!) Here we go!

MITSUKO UCHIDA

Considered to be one of the foremost “Mozartian” interpreters of the past 30 years, it took me a while to snuggle up to Mitsuko’s personal and outward way of expressing her musical feelings and understanding as she plays. (I am now quite glad I did!). After a short while, I began to understand the intensity of how she dissects Mozart’s work and how she masters every phrase. When you combine this along with her exceptional (and natural) piano technique and deep musical understanding of the music at hand, it is not hard to be overtaken by her; both musically and emotionally!  But in fact, Mitsuko clearly states, “It takes more than just talent, but a lifetime to understand music”.

The lovely Mitsuko, while playing with a ‘light’ yet subtlety effective touch can show intense veracity and emotion when the music calls for it. As you watch and listen to her it’s as if she is having a one-on-one telephone conversation with the orchestra as well as the listener! Ms.Uchida uses this combination of exuberance and tenderness with such wonderful rhythmic freedom along with her perceptively beautiful “singing” tone!

A master of Schubert, Schoenberg, and of course, Mozart, if you have not heard Mitsuko’s renditions of  Beethoven , you are truly missing out on a thrilling experience. Some might even say that her work here is more profound and deeply penetrating than some of her Mozart and in fact, I believe this just might be the case, indeed!

ALFRED BRENDEL

What can one say about one of the greatest living pianists of the last generation? Besides being an amazingly proficient musician and pianist, his poetry and writing have won him much praise the world over. He is particularly known for his mastery of Beethoven, Mozart and Schoenberg, while having a particular gift with the works of Franz Schubert.

Here is one of the indisputable classics in the Schubert piano discographies; Brendel’s recording of Shubert’s Drei Klavierstucke, D946 . His combination of textural clarity and a formative, yet delicate finesse supremely shows off the composer’s music to its utmost!

It is quite hard to deny that his association with Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields has brought us some of the most exemplary examples of Mozart’s piano concertos ever put on recorded disc. Brendel plays with a continuous knowledge of where he wants to take us with his Mozart being distinct and to the point! He never fails to please with his exquisite, and intuitive timing and balance. Now 87 years old, Brendel can bask in the sun as we re-live his genius through the countless recordings this master has made!

MURRAY PERAHIA

   New York City born and of Spanish Sephardic Jewish decent, Murray Perahia is considered one of the veteran classical piano superstars of the 20th century. His playing now is as exceptionally dynamic as it was some 30 years ago; all the more extraordinary considering his midlife right thumb injury he endured in 1990.

Having overcome it with strength and dexterity, his magnificent recordings of Brahms, Chopin and Bach Partitas have won him numerous Grammy awards over the years. His playing has always exhibited a ‘thorough’ and distinct understanding of the composers and music he plays. He also understands exactly when to be assertive in his touch as well as having an intuitive ‘knack’ and objectivity particularly when using ‘adornments’ in his Mozart. Watch this fine interview with musicologist Denis Forman as he rehearses Mozart’s K.595; one of the most authoritative interpretations of this work in of any of the great ‘Mozartian’ pianists alive today!

Perahia has, somewhat recently, turned his attentions and study to Bach with a series of recordings that pronounce the depth and lucidity of thought he has acquired while studying this formative composer.

ANDRAS SCHIFF

Another ‘historic’ pianist who became world renown towards the end of the last century, Schiff is no doubt a Beethoven interpreter extraordinaire. The Hungarian born pianist and conductor has made an inimitable mark on the classical music world, receiving numerous prizes and honors including Grammy’s, Gramophone Magazine Awards and the Mozart Medal.

Schiff is in his prime with Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, and in 2004 he performed the complete cycles of the 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas in 20 cities! You must listen to his Decca cycle of Sonatas, particularly the “Pathetique”  to really understand how well he demonstrates his decisive understanding of tempo in the aforementioned Beethoven sonata; invariably understanding the master composers wishes

LANG LANG  The Chinese born pianist has literally overtaken the minds of the classical music world when he made his debut here in America. For a musician of such high quality, it is hard to believe that he almost forgave his career when being expelled from his tutor’s class for “lack of talent”.

When I first heard of him and the way he was “commercially” promoted here in America, I had really no interest in seriously listening to his playing. Then, having watched and heard him on DVD and some exceptionally recorded performances, my understanding of why he is so successful sank in rather rapidly!

This is a musician of such intensity and intoxicating clarity that just about anything Lang Lang plays is noteworthy, if not outstanding. There is NOTHING that this man can not accomplish, and the feelings and expression displayed when he performs is something that will leave no serious music lover anything to be desired. As anyone reading this knows, his numerous recordings, appearances and awards are to long and diverse to even list.

Lang Lang has developed amazing intonations, passion, beautiful phrasing and understanding of the music and the technical brilliance to bring every bit of it to fruition with each performance.

There is a feeling by some people in that Lang Lang has overexposed himself both here and internationally by some music enthusiasts. All I can say is that if so, it has not taken one iota away from his glorious technique and musicality at the piano. Here is a video of a performance he did with Paavo Jarvo conducting the Orchestre de Paris of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto # 1 in B Flat minor from 2015.

MARTHA ARGERICH

An exquisite legend of the classical music world, Martha Argerich is now 75 years old but you would never suspect it as she plays here recently with the eminent pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim

Argentinian born Martha Argerich brings forth such exqisitely inspired, natural beauty that you can sense that she was born with a ferocious inherent genius! There has never been a technicalchallenge she has not overcome and when you hear her playing, you are ensconced in a telegraphic lens that just pulls you into the performance at hand.

Her energy is amazing and in her later years she combined both dexterity and speed along with her uniquely quantifying “sound” on the keyboard. Although Martha loves Prokofiev and Ravel as well as Tchaikovsky and Schumann, she has a special quality in her playing that is a showcase for Beethoven. (This despite not ever recording a full cycle of Beethoven Sonatas). But when she does a Beethoven piano concerto, a buzz of pure electricity overcomes the listener. She is in command of everything from start to finish!

Martha seems to combine a strange sense of strength and power when which some immediately identify as a male trait when she plays. If this is true then she should be applauded all the more as her playing is filled with a uniquely “androgynous” sound, if there could be such a thing.

YEOL EUM SUN 

I had to list Yeol Eum Sun amongst these legendary pianists as the youngest member here and with good reason! Eum Sun born in 1986) is quite literally a breathtaking pianist; and at her age my enthusiasm for her is even stronger! This truly wonderful South Korean pianist was initially taken under the wings of Lorin Maazel and the N.Y. Philharmonic which in turn drew her enormous attention by music lovers and critics worldwide.

Having awards are numerous; (double second prize winner at the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in 2011 to name but one). She is a sensual, emotional yet powerful pianist exhibiting gracefulness as well as a “crystalline” purity and velvet touch on the keyboard.

When first watching and listening to her, one is immediately drawn to her distinctive and knowledgeable “rhythmic timing” as well as a pure and deep musical understanding of the composers wishes. Although her repertoire is not ultimately developed at the moment, her performance o Mozart’s piano concerto #21 in C major  is arguably, one of, if not the finest interpretation of this work that I have heard in decades!

Yeol Eum Sun is a legend in the making and a pianist every music lover will come to reckon with.

EVGENNY KISSIN

Russian born child prodigy Evgenny Kissin has been a British citizen since 2003 and an Israeli citizen since 2013. To put it bluntly, Kissin is simply a remarkable classical pianist who exhibits flawless, dazzling finger work, stupendous keyboard technique and a refreshing, exciting vitality to his music.

Having already toured with some of the greatest orchestras and conductors around the world, Kissin quietly but surely ‘explodes’ upon you once his hands hit the keyboard. Upon entrance to his now brilliant career, many people likened him to a new “Vladimir Horowitz”. I don’t know if that would be what he would want us to think, but there is no doubt that Kissin understands music and the piano better than almost anybody in the spotlight today.

Mr. Kissin’s repertoire and discography consists of, but not limited to Beethoven, Mozart, Shubert and what he claims to be his favorite, the beloved Chopin. Here is a superb performance by Kissin playing with the Israel Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta conducting Chopin’s piano concerto # 1.

DANIEL BARENBOIM

What Einstein is to physics, Daniel Barenboim is to 20th century classical music. Now in his seventies, one cannot deny that Daniel Barenboim is not only a pianist and musician of astounding quality but a superb orchestral and operatic conductor as well. The Argentine-Israeli born pianist early on was highly influenced by the late conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler who in a letter to the 11-year-old prodigy stated, “He is a phenomenon”. Here he plays the Beethoven Emporer Concerto with Mariss Jansons from 2017.

Barenboim’s repertoire is literally never ending as his technical genius allows him the ability to master almost all of the greatest composers of our time. His Mozart sonata and piano concerto cycles for EMI and The English Chamber Orchestra in 1967, (and later, a possibly more successful round with Teldec and The Berlin Philharmonic in the early 80’s) which inaugurated his outstanding career are in many spheres, still the standard bearers by which others must be judged. His full cycle of the Beethoven Sonatas on DVD are a must have for any sincere music collector . There may not be another pianist /conductor directing from the keyboard who can match his unabashed authority and control of the music and the orchestra while playing well as him. (1969 live )

The Hallmarks of  Barenboim’s playing are noticed right away by his intuitive use and expert precision of his fingers on the keyboard. His unmeasured silences and contrasts of dynamics develop into outbursts of exquisite yet assertive keyboard punctuation. Barenboim’s mind and fingers work as one total expression—like a “savory” butter that simply melts with the orchestra in which he dominates completely. Of course, his phenomenal memory of complete scores undoubtedly helps him to round out his extreme concentration, bringing him, the music and his audience to the forefront of each individual performance and/or recording.

 VLADIMIR ASHKENAZY 

Vladimir Ashkenazy is another of my favorite, prodigious and internationally recognized solo pianists, chamber music performers and conductor. His name must be mandated in any list such as this. Having continued a longstanding relationship with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Decca Records, he is a virtuoso when it comes to Beethoven, Schumann, Shostakovich and Chopin, to name just a few.

Ashkenazy is not flashy in any respect, which is one of his finest attributes, particularly with his Beethoven piano sonatas and and piano concertos. With refreshing musical insight and an amazing technical virtuosity, this may only be overshadowed by his conducting to some extent. (the only one that can truly match Daniel Barenboim). One must never overlook his excellent recordings of Mozart’s piano concertos where he conducts from the keyboard with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

EMANUEL AX 

The brilliance of Emanuel Ax is so damn intoxicating, that you become literally spellbound as you watch him play! A master technician, he plays the piano with unbelievable command of the instrument as well as nuanced and dazzling sensuality.

Listen to his performances with Yo-Yo Ma and Yitzak Perlman in the Mendelsohn trios as well as his 2 piano music of Brahms and Rachmaninoff with Yfim Bromfman . Ax has such a well-trained ear for music (let’s just say, inborn) that he is one of the few pianists I have ever heard who can truly write some of the most excellently laid out cadenzas; ( listen to his exquisite cadenza in his Mozart Piano Concerto # 22) a gift that most of the musicians on this list surely leave much to be desired!

KRYSTIAN ZIMERMAN

There are many who would proclaim that Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman’s performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Leonard Bernstein is the most “predominant” recording and performance of this work that is presently available. Quite personally, it is quite hard to disagree with this assessment.

Zimerman’s greatest admirers revel in the way he executes his phenomenal style, power and brilliant intellect to inscribe his mark on them in such profound ways! Clearly a Chopin specialist, if some of his performances are not “perfection” at its utmost, then one may never know what true perfection really is!

The man never fails to portray a majestic feeling when playing, while also combining intimacy and daring simplicity to his pianistic prowess. I would venture to say that above all he has inborn musical ‘insight’ within him that distinguishes him from most of the other great pianists of our time. Here is the full Deutche Gramophone recording he made of Chopins piano concerto # 1 as he plays and conducts the Polish Festival Orchestra.

MAURIZIO POLLINI

Rounding out this list as our 13th greatest pianist is the immortal Maurizio Pollini. Now reaching 76 years young, Pollini is one of the few performers that brings the listener into his personal spell with his repertoire which spans Beethoven to Schoenberg and Boulez.

Here is an early performance of Beethoven’s piano concerto #5 with Claudio Abbado conducting which shows his restrained yet authoritatively exceptional approach and confidence at the keyboard. He literally grabs the bull by the horns in his conservative style yet with considerable impact, subtleness and pure beauty. Pollini knows where he is going without any impatience; all the more appreciated by the listener. There is not a note or phrase that is not perfectly accentuated, giving us supreme confidence in his playing.

As with Beethoven, Pollini’s has transversed the major works of Chopin; in a way quite different than many others on this list. Great tempos, precision and timing are some of the qualities that Maurizio Pollini has brought forward here as one of the historic pianists of our time!

HELENE GRIMAUD

I have added Hélène Grimaud to this list of great classical pianists. Grimaud is one of the most exciting young classical pianists to have come to stardom in the last 10 years. In 1987, she launched her professional career with a solo recital in Paris and a performance with the Orchestre de Paris under Daniel Barenboim. She immediately demands attention as she plays and her sublime ‘perfection’ in every note her fingers hit is a feast in musicality. Grimaud doesn’t sound like most pianists: she is a rubato artist, a master of phrasings and is not afraid to take chances.

In her performance here of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, the initially slightly faster speed of the allegro first surprises you. Soon afterwards, you become aware that her timing is perfectly meshed with the exceptional technicality of her finger work; from there on in she reigns supreme! Grimaud is an exceptionally gifted musician and this is demonstrated in all of her piano works and with the composers she represents, both solo or with orchestra. She has become one of my favorite classical pianists!

DO THEY MEASURE UP?

The listings here obviously speak for themselves. On the other hand, picking out 13 of the greatest living pianists today is somewhat like looking for a needle in a haystack. Subjective preferences aside, I believe that with some exceptions, you cannot find a better group of living classical pianists. On the other hand, I will bet that you, the readers, will have some greatly differing and informative comments and opinions on this group of artists. Let me know what they are as your comments here are welcome and encouraged. So, start writing!

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2 thoughts on “The 13 GREATEST LIVING CLASSICAL PIANISTS (A Bakers Dozen)

  1. How on earth can you omit Yuja Wang, Daniil Trifinov , Maria joao Pires , Stephen Hough and now the greatest of all the Asian pianists Ju-Hee Lim? Too many of those you have chosen were ONCE great but the fact that they are still alive is no justification for including them. In the cases of Grimaud and Lang-Lang they have never been near true greatness and should not even have been considered.

    • There are a plethora of newcomers as you noted that could be mentioned.(eg.Yuja Wang.). Still, it would be hard to overlook the vintage great ones, who in most ways, can equal or out due the younger pianists in most ways!

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