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Greatest pianists of the 20th Century

Vladimir Horowitz (Владимир Самойлович Горовиц), ( October 1, 1903 – November 5, 1989) was a classical pianist of Jewish origin. His use of colors, technique and the excitement of his playing are thought by many to be unrivalled, and his performances of works as diverse as those of Domenico Scarlatti and Alexander Scriabin were equally legendary. He has a huge and passionate following and is widely considered by many to be the very greatest pianist of the 20th Century.

Born in Kiev, Ukraine,   Horowitz had piano lessons from an early age, initially from his mother, who was herself a professional pianist. In 1912 he entered the Kiev Conservatory, leaving in 1919, and playing the Piano Concerto No. 3 of Rachmaninoff at his graduation. His first solo recital followed in 1920. His stardom rose rapidly – he soon began to tour Russia where he was often paid with bread, butter and chocolate  rather than money due to the country's economic hardships. During the 1922-1923 season, he performed 23 concerts of eleven different programs in Leningrad alone . In 1926 Horowitz made his first appearance outside his home country, in Berlin. He later played in Paris, London and New York City, and it was in the United States that he eventually settled in 1940. He became a United States citizen in 1944.

In 1932 he played for the first time with the conductor Arturo Toscanini in a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 (the Emperor concerto). The two went on to appear together many times, both on stage and on record. In 1933, Horowitz married Wanda Toscanini, the conductor's daughter. Despite receiving rapturous receptions at his recitals, Horowitz became increasingly unsure of his abilities as a pianist. Several times he withdrew from public performances (1936-1938, 1953-1965, 1969-1974, 1983-1985), and it is said that on several occasions, Horowitz had to be pushed onto the stage. After 1965 he gave solo recitals only rarely.

Horowitz made many recordings, starting in 1928 upon his arrival in the United States and ending four days before his death in 1989. His early recordings were made for HMV, the most notable of which is his 1930 recording of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Albert Coates and the London Symphony Orchestra, the first recording of that piece. In the 1940s and 1950s, Horowitz recorded for RCA Victor. During this period, he made his first recording of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, under Toscanini. After 1953, when Horowitz went into retirement, he made a number of acclaimed recordings at home, including discs of Alexander Scriabin and Muzio Clementi. In 1962, Horowitz began recording for Columbia Records, and it is these recordings which are among the best known. The most famous among them is his 1965 return concert at Carnegie Hall and his 1968 performance from his television special, Horowitz on Television, featuring Scriabin's Etude Op. 8 No. 12 and Horowitz's own Variations on a Theme from Bizet's Carmen, the most famous of his piano transcriptions along with the Stars and Stripes Forever. From 1965 until 1982, many of Horowitz's recordings were done live.

After another brief retirement from 1983 until 1985 (he was playing in a drugged state and as a result, memory lapses and loss of physical control occurred during his tour of America and Japan), Horowitz returned to recording and occasional concertizing. In 1986, Horowitz made a return to the Soviet Union to give a series of concerts in Moscow and Leningrad. In the new atmosphere of communication and understanding between the USSR and the USA, these concerts were seen as events of some political, as well as musical, significance. The Moscow concert was recorded and released, entitled Horowitz in Moscow. Vladimir Horowitz died in New York of a heart attack. He was buried in the Toscanini family tomb in Cimitero Monumentale, Milan, Italy.

Sviatoslav Richter (Святосла́в Теофи́лович Ри́хтер) (March 20, 1915 – August 1, 1997) was a Soviet pianist of German extraction. Sviatoslav Richter can be said to be one of the most legendary and fascinating pianists of the 20th century. He was well known for his vast repertoire, effortless technique and poetic phrasing.

Richter was born in Zhitomir in Ukraine but grew up in Odessa. Unusually, he was largely self-taught although his organist father provided him with a basic education in music. Richter learned mostly by playing the masterworks of the repertoire, including the piano scores of Wagner's music dramas. He started to work at the Odessa Conservatory where he accompanied the opera rehearsals. He gave his first recital in 1934 at the engineer club of Odessa but did not formally study piano until three years later, when he enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory, which waived the entrance exam for the young prodigy after it was clear he would not pass. He studied with Heinrich Neuhaus who also taught Emil Gilels, and who claimed Richter to be "the genius pupil, for whom he had been waiting all his life". In 1940, while still a student, he gave the world premiere of the Sonata No. 6 by Sergei Prokofiev, a composer with whose works he was ever after associated. He also became known for skipping compulsory political lessons at the conservatory and being expelled twice during his first year.

In 1949 he won the Stalin Prize, which lead to extensive concert tours in Russia, Eastern Europe and China. The West first became aware of Richter through recordings made in the 1950s. He was not allowed to tour the United States until 1960, but when he did, he created a sensation. Touring, however, was not Richter's forte. He preferred not having to plan concerts years in advance, and in later years took to playing in small, often darkened halls, sometimes with only a small lamp lighting his piano. He died in Moscow while studying for a concert series he was to give.

Richter's repertoire spanned virtually all the major works of the piano repertoire. Among his noted recordings are works by Franz Schubert, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninoff and countless others. He is said to be the finest interpreter of the piano works of Robert Schumann. He gave the premiere of Prokofiev's Sonata no. 7 (which he learned in just four days before staging a performance of the work), and Prokofiev dedicated his Sonata no. 9 to him. Apart from playing solo he also enjoyed playing chamber music with partners such as David Oistrakh, Benjamin Britten, Pierre Fournier and Mstislav Rostropovich. He had unusually large hands, capable of taking a "twelveth".

 

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (January 5, 1920 – June 12, 1995) was an Italian classical pianist. He began music lessons at the age of three. At ten he entered the Milan Conservatory.  At age 18 he began his professional career by entering the Ysa˙e International Festival, where he placed seventh. A year later he would earn his first fame in an international festival held in Geneva where he was acclaimed as "a new Liszt" by pianist Alfred Cortot, a presiding judge. He has been regarded as among the most commanding and individual piano virtuosos of the 20th century among names such as Horowitz and Richter. He is often considered the most important Italian pianist after Ferruccio Busoni.

Other discographical highlights include live performances in London of Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit and Chopin's Sonata No. 2. His pairing of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4 is thought to be one of the greatest concerto recordings ever made, and his Debussy series for DG is something of a benchmark, if sometimes accused of being a little unatmospheric. His repertoire was strikingly small for a concert pianist.

Michelangeli was famous for last-minute cancellations of his concert recitals as well as being an obsessive perfectionist at the keyboard. His last concert took place on May 7, 1993 in Hamburg. After an extended illness he died in Lugano.

Great DVD of Michelangeli's (2006 releases):(1) Michelangeli Plays Chopin (2)Michelangeli Plays Beethoven (3) Michelangeli Plays Debussy.

"Crystalline perfection" ... "a capricious perfectionist" ... "aloof, statuesque" -- all terms sometimes used to describe Michelangeli. David Dubal once epitomized the pianistic phenomenon called Michelangeli as "the merging of mechanism with music". This is a perfect synthesis of his craft.

 Michelangeli is unquestionably one of the most intellectual and fascinating pianists of the 20th century. His playing is  perfect and his  gesture is elegant and controlled. His playing looks noble and effortless. He seems to figure for both the  attractiveness of the intellectual as an exclusive vessel for understanding and reproducing Art.  Highly recommend these DVDs.

 

Emil Gilels (Э́миль Григо́рьевич Ги́лельс) (October 19, 1916 – October 14, 1985) was a Ukrainian classical pianist of the Soviet era. Gilels was born in Odessa to a musical Jewish family; both his parents were musicians. He began studying the piano at six under Yakov Tkach, making his first public debut at the age of 12 in June 1929. In 1930 Gilels entered the Odessa Conservatory.

In 1933 Gilels won the newly-founded All Soviet Union Piano Competition at age 16. After graduating from the Odessa Conservatory in 1935, he moved to Moscow, where he studied under the famous piano teacher Heinrich Neuhaus until 1937. A year later, at age 21, he won the Ysa˙e International Festival in Brussels, beating such competitors as Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Moura Lympany. He was the winner of the prestigious Stalin Prize in 1946, the Order of Lenin in 1961 and 1966 and the Lenin Prize in 1962. Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 8 was dedicated to Gilels and he performed it first on December 30, 1944, in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory.

Gilels was universally admired for his superb technical control and burnished tone. His interpretations of the central German-Austria classics formed the core of his repertoire, in particular Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann, but he was equally illuminative in Scarlatti, Bach as well as twentieth-century music like Debussy, Bartók and Prokofiev.

 

Claudio Arrau (February 6, 1903–June 9, 1991) was a Chilean-American pianist, of world fame for his interpretations of a huge repertory spanning from the baroque to 20th-century composers. He is considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.

He was a child prodigy, giving his first concert at age 5. At age 7 he was sent on a Chilean government grant to study in Germany, where he was a pupil of Martin Krause, who had studied under Franz Liszt. At the age of 12 he could play Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, considered to be one of the most difficult sets of works ever written for the piano.

He recorded the complete piano music of Robert Schumann, and edited his works for publication. He is also famous for his recordings of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Liszt, and Debussy, among others. He played with style and passion, although often with a seemingly "untidy" technique; he was more musician than technician. He is said to have had a warm persona, and his playing is consistent with this description. In particular his rich, weighty tone, which has been likened to vintage Burgundy wine, lends his interpretations a distinctive voice. Although he often played with slower and more deliberate tempi from his middle age, Arrau had a reputation for being a virtuoso early in his career.

In February 1979, Arrau became a naturalized citizen of the United States. At the time of his death in Mürzzuschlag, Austria, he was working on a CD recording of the complete works of Bach for keyboard.

 

Arthur Rubinstein (January 28, 1887 – December 20, 1982) is often regarded as the greatest pianist of his generation, and received international acclaim for his performances of Chopin and his championing of Spanish music.

Born in Łódź, Poland to a Jewish family, and studied in Warsaw. He made his debut in Berlin in 1900, followed by appearances in Germany and Poland and further study with Paderewski. In 1904, he went to Paris, where he met the composers Ravel, Dukas, and the violinist Jacques Thibaud. He also played Saint-Saëns' G minor Piano Concerto in the presence of the composer. Rubinstein made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall in 1906, and thereafter toured the United States, Austria, Italy, and Russia. In 1912, he made his London debut.

During World War I Rubinstein lived mainly in London, England, accompanying the violinst Eugčne Ysa˙e. From 1916 to 1917, he toured Spain and South America, developing an enthusiasm for the music of Granados, Albéniz, de Falla, and Villa-Lobos. He was the dedicatee of Villa-Lobos' "Rudepoema", one of the most difficult piano pieces ever written. During World War II, Rubinstein lived in the United States and became a naturalized citizen in 1946. He refused to play in post-war Germany because of the Nazi extermination of members of his family. Although best known as a soloist, Rubinstein was also an outstanding chamber musician, partnering with such luminaries as Henryk Szeryng, Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky. In addition to Chopin, he also recorded the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, and Dvořák.

He retired from the stage in 1976, as his eyesight and hearing were rapidly deteriorating. He became totally blind in later life. Rubinstein died in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1982 at age 95. His ashes were  interred Israel.

 

Glenn Herbert Gould (September 25, 1932 – October 4, 1982) was a celebrated Canadian pianist, noted especially for his recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach's keyboard music.  Gould's first piano teacher was his mother. From the age of ten he began attending the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where he studied piano with Alberto Guerrero, organ with Frederick C. Silvester and theory with Leo Smith.

In 1945, he gave his first public performance (on the organ) and the following year he made his first appearance with an orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, in a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4. His first public recital followed in 1947 and his first recital on radio came with the CBC in 1950. This was the beginning of his long association with radio and recording. In 1957, Gould toured the Soviet Union, becoming the first North American to play there since the Second World War. His concerts featured Bach and the serial music of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, which previously had been suppressed in the Soviet Union during the era of Socialist Realism. Gould returned to the West keen to popularize the music of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. On April 10, 1964, Gould gave his last public performance in Los Angeles, California. For the rest of his life he focused on making recordings, writing and broadcasting.

His playing had great clarity, particularly in contrapuntal passages. Many listeners found Gould's own approach to Bach to be refreshing, even revelatory. Gould had a formidable technique that enabled him to choose very fast tempos while retaining the separateness and crisp clarity of each note. Despite its shortcomings in Romantic period music, Gould's one-of-a-kind technique yielded excellent results in Baroque period music, The music of Bach formed the core of his repertoire, and it is for his interpretations of Bach's works that he is most remembered. He died in Toronto in 1982 after suffering a massive stroke and is buried in Toronto's Mount.

 

Alfred Cortot (September 26, 1877 – June 15, 1962) was a French pianist and conductor. He is one of the most popular 20th century musicians, renowned for his poetic insight in Romantic period piano works.

 Cortot studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Emile Decombes (a pupil of Chopin), He made his debut at the Concerts Colonne in 1897, playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3. Between 1898 and 1901 he was a choral coach, and subsequently assistant conductor, at the Bayreuth Festspiele, and in 1902 he conducted the Paris premiere of Götterdämmerung by Wagner. He formed a concert society to perform Wagner's Parsifal, Beethoven's Missa solemnis, Brahms' German Requiem, and new works by French composers. In 1905, Cortot formed a trio with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals, which established itself as the leading piano trio of its era. From 1907 to 1923 Cortot taught at the Paris Conservatoire, where his pupils included Haskil, Lipatti, and Perlemuter. In 1919 he founded the École Normale de Musique de Paris . His courses in musical interpretation were legendary. He toured as a pianist all over the world, also appearing as guest conductor of many orchestras. He died in Lausanne.

As a pianist, Cortot was particularly noted for his interpretations of Frédéric Chopin and Robert Schumann, and he made editions of both those composers' music, editions notable for Cortot's meticulous commentary on technical problems and matters of interpretation. Many connoisseurs consider him to be the greatest interpreter of their works. Cortot was among the very greatest musicians of the century and represented the end of an era. He is considered the last exponent of a personal, subjective style that deprecated precise technique in favor of intuition, interpretation and authentic spirit.

 

Jorge Bolet (November 15, 1914–October 16, 1990) was a pianist and conductor. Bolet was born in Havana in Cuba and studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he himself taught from 1939 to 1942. His teachers included Leopold Godowsky and David Saperton.

In 1942 Bolet joined the US Army and was sent to Japan. While there, he conducted the Japanese premiere of The Mikado. He provided the piano soundtrack for the 1960 film about Liszt, "Song without End." He came especially to prominence from the early 1970s onwards and there was a stupendous recital at Carnegie Hall, New York City, which set a seal on his reputation. Bolet, "stung by years of neglect" , showed exactly what he could do and his phenomenal playing can be heard on CDs issued most recently by PHILIPS in their Great Pianists Series. He later became Head of Piano at the Curtis Institute, succeeding Rudolf Serkin, but retired from this to concentrate once again on his career.

Bolet is particularly well remembered for his performances and recordings of large-scale Romantic music, particularly works by Franz Liszt and Frederic Chopin. He also specialized in piano transcriptions and unusual repertoire, including the fiendishly difficult works of Godowsky, many of which Bolet had studied with the composer himself.

 

Georges (György) Cziffra (November 5, 1921–January 17, 1994) was a Hungarian virtuoso pianist. Many of his recordings are regarded as controversial, claimed by some to be showy and unmusical. There is generally little doubt, however, that Cziffra had superior technique and was a master at improvisation. Born in Budapest, Cziffra became noted at the age of five, improvising on popular tunes in bars and circuses. His teachers at the Franz Liszt Academy included Ernö Dohnányi.

An attempted escape from Soviet-dominated Hungary led to imprisonment and forced labor in the period 1950–1953. In 1956, however, after further trials, Cziffra was given permission to go to Vienna — where he commenced his international career — and later to London and France. He always performed with a large leather wristband, as a memento of his years in labor. Georges Cziffra died in Senlis, France, 72 years old, from a heart attack resulting from series of complications from lung cancer due to smoking and alcohol.

Cziffra is most known for his extravagant recordings of Franz Liszt's virtuoso works. He also recorded many of Frédéric Chopin's compositions. Cziffra also made a famous transcription of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee, written in octaves and chords.

 

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