Virtuosity is the highest standard of musical technique and performance, a skill only truly attained by a handful of exceptionally talented musicians. The BBC Music Magazine team look back on some of the greats from over the centuries, and choose the virtuosos they wish they’d seen play.
Organist Virgil Fox (1912-80)
The American organist had it all – charisma, showmanship, exceptional technique, great musicianship and a seemingly inexhaustible love of touring. Granted, his interpretations weren’t always to everyone’s taste, but his Bach playing was meticulous and his performance of the ‘grand’ repertoire never less than exhilarating. Oliver Condy, editor
Pianist Earl Wild (1915-2010)
I had the privilege of interviewing the US pianist Earl Wild late on in his life but, alas, never had the chance to see him play live. I was first made aware of his brilliance when a friend recommended his thrilling performances of the four Rachmaninov piano concertos with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Jascha Horenstein, recorded in 1965 – they remain my favourite recordings to this day.
Blessed with a peerless technique, his repertoire was wide-ranging, taking in everything from Bach to jazz, plus, his own masterful transcriptions and other compositions. It was, perhaps, that sense of spontaneity that goes with playing jazz that made his live performances of classical music so fresh and exciting? I’ll simply have to take others’ word for it. Jeremy Pound, deputy editor
Pianist Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Liszt may loom large in the modern imagination as the great piano whizz of his age, but if I had a time machine to take me back to the Romantic era, it’s Chopin I would really like to hear. By all accounts, his own playing was all about beautiful sound, the singing voice, intimacy and eloquence. To hear him play his own remarkable piano works must have been quite something.
Fellow pianist-composer Robert Schumann noted down what his feelings on it were: ‘It was an unforgettable picture to see Chopin sitting at the piano like a clairvoyant, lost in his dreams, to see how his vision communicated itself through his playing and how, at the end of each piece, he had the sad habit of running one finger over the length of the plaintive keyboard, as though to tear himself forcibly away from his dream.’ Rebecca Franks, managing editor
Cellist Msistlav Rostropovich (1927-2007)
Anyone who saw Rostropovich in action was incredibly lucky. He could breathe new fire into the most familiar repertoire and inspired some of the 20th century’s greatest composers to write new works. Just imagine being at a Shostakovich or Prokofiev premiere. Michael Beek, reviews editor
Pianist Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Anyone with a hand span of over an octave, giving them the ability to reach eye-watering intervals, is always going to be worth a watch. Rachmaninov’s 13-note spread marked him out in the piano world, but perhaps what made him a legend were his clear, crisp textures, incredible technique and voicing.
He also had an awe-inspiring memory, and was reportedly able to hear a piece of music as large-scale as a symphony, and play it the next day. Freya Parr, editorial assistant