20. Claudio Arrau (1903-1991), Chilean
Arrau’s talent at eight was so advanced, the Chilean government paid for him to go to Berlin for the best teacher, and for the next few years Martin Krause, a Liszt pupil, was a father to him, introducing him to a vast range of culture, and helping him develop his transcendental technique.
When Krause died in 1918 Arrau was bereft, and went into psychoanalysis. Gradually he built up an immense international reputation, especially after World War II. Though he could play dazzling virtuoso pieces with the best of his rivals, his real concern was ever more searching, probing of the greatest works, above all Beethoven and – at the end of his life, since he regarded Schubert as ‘the supreme challenge’ – Schubert in his last masterpieces for piano.
Arrau was the Faustian among pianists, always dissatisfied and disturbed, while cultivating a warmth and a unique depth of tone. At times his playing was overlaid with self-consciousness to an almost suffocating extent, but in the deepest music he has very few peers.
At the end of his life he made a series of recordings which deserve a life-time’s listening. He found far more in Liszt than most, so his recording of the Transcendental Studies is a superb way to get deep into both composer and pianist.
Great piano playing requires you to have incredible emotional tension without getting physically tense. That seems simple, but it isn’t.
Liszt: Studies in the Transcendental Execution
Pentatone PTC 5186171
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19. Josef Hofmann (1876-1957), Polish
An astonishing child prodigy from Poland, Hofmann ‘retired’ at 12 for further study with Moritz Moszkowski and Anton Rubinstein, then resumed his career at 18. Eventually he settled in the US, becoming director of the Curtis Institute of Music. Revered as one of the supreme pianists of his day, Hofmann’s effortless technique permitted a kaleidoscope of tonal colourings and expressive guises ranging from aching tenderness to heaven-storming pandemonium.
The quality of his melodic tone was full and round, and commanding or beguiling by turns; its prominence in the overall texture lent his sonority nobility. His playing also possessed spontaneity, which led him to highlight ‘inner voices’ and add surprises of dynamics and timing that later listeners can find disconcerting.
His few studio recordings sometimes reveal a clinical craftsman, while in live performance his playing was more temperamental, even occasionally violent. Hofmann’s large repertory emphasised Chopin, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, and the virtuoso character pieces of his time.
World-oblivious and alone with his instrument, (the pianist) can commune with his innermost and best self.
Golden Jubilee Concert (1937) – Rubinstein: Concerto No. 4
18. Walter Gieseking (1895-1956), German
Gieseking was a gentle giant among pianists, but his supposed politics tarnished his reputation. Although cleared of being a Nazi collaborator, he wasn’t able to play in the US until 1955. He is best remembered as an interpreter of the French School, Debussy in particular liking his gossamer touch, though his Mozart (the complete solo piano works) and incomplete Beethoven sonata recordings are also prized for their clarity and classical dignity.
The opening movement of the Moonlight Sonata is almost trance-like, as if Gieseking were reluctant to touch the keys lest the spell be broken. Elegance, nuance and understatement depict his style. ‘Sophisticated’ is often considered a rude word these days but, in its literal sense, it perhaps best describes him – his appearance and his playing.
Whereas Wilhelm Backhaus, Edwin Fischer (No. 13) and Schnabel (No. 6) were baritones of the piano, Gieseking was definitely a tenor; compare, for example, his svelte Mozartian Beethoven Emperor Concerto with Fischer’s aggressive, muscular version, both superb but utterly different.
Gieseking had a wide repertoire which included Rachmaninov’s Second and Third concertos and, surprisingly, Tchaikovsky’s First. He also championed new music which, sadly, never got to disc. Gieseking was also a great team player – his near definitive recording of Mozart’s Piano Quintet K542 with the Philharmonia’s fabulous foursome is testament to this.
One has only to be able to read notes correctly, but that is beyond most performers.
Mozart: Quintet in E flat for piano and wind, K452
Testament SBT 1091
17. Glenn Gould (1932-82), Canadian
Bernstein called him ‘the greatest thing to happen to music in years’, yet improbably the defining moment in that ‘happening’ occurred in an abandoned New York Presbyterian Church in June 1955.
Related to Grieg on his mother’s side, the 23-year-old Glenn Gould recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a rebel with a cause, kicking against the prevailing Bachian norm with a mixture of forensic analysis, exhilarating playfulness and dazzling clarity. And Bach would dominate his eclectic music-making even after the one night stand of the concert platform had given way to a lifelong relationship with the studio.
Chopin, Liszt and Schumann were famously ‘off’ Gould’s radar – as was Mozart, despite a provocative recorded set of the piano sonatas. Schoenberg, Beethoven, Brahms and Gibbons (‘my favourite’) all received the Gouldian imprint, but Bach remained at the centre of his universe, with a second Goldbergs recording preceding his untimely death in 1982. The 1955 ‘first thoughts’ remain special however: ‘The record debut of Glenn Gould, a keyboard genius’ as the American Record Guide headed its review.
My idea of happiness is 250 days a year in a studio
JS Bach: Goldberg Variations
Sony Classical 827969038727
16. Murray Perahia (b. 1947), American
Hearsay has it that when Murray Perahia enlisted for the Leeds Piano Competition, fellow American competitors, suspecting the game was up, made for the exit. A pupil of Mieczysaw Horszowski, Perahia won with a performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 whose poise and classicism set a marker for the qualities which have proved his hallmark.
Of the Fischer/Cortot generation (see Nos 13 & 5), he insists ‘there’s no technique, it’s just speaking’, and a similar unforced directness informed his first major recording project: a translucent, landmark set of the complete Mozart concertos. Other than a Bartókian aside, the canon from Bach to Brahms has absorbed his subsequent attention on disc, the former a fruitful ‘therapy’ that got him through a period of enforced silence due to hand problems.
Aristocratic without being aloof and devoid of ego, Perahia’s playing transfixes and illuminates. Anointed by the ailing Britten to accompany Peter Pears, Perahia’s Aldeburgh recording with Radu Lupu (No. 13) of the slow movement of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos is an essay in sublime communion, and a benediction.
I’m interested in the thing that lasts forever: the thought behind the music.
Mozart: Sonata K448; Schubert: Fantasia D940, both with Radu Lupu
15. Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991), German
The core of his repertory was great music of the German tradition – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms – but Wilhelm Kempff played as though he were improvising rather than presiding over a solemn ritual. Gifted with a sensitive touch and a predisposition for intimacy of expression, Kempff’s delicacy caused him to achieve charming, satisfying character in moments where others concentrated on momentum and precision.
Although capable of flights of extroverted virtuosity, he was sometimes cautious with (or made heavy weather of) difficult passages, and endemic to his spontaneous approach is the reality of uneven, variable playing between and even within individual performances. Yet at his best he had an enviable way of making music sound natural and unpretentious while simultaneously tapping into the profound wisdom of artless simplicity.
In my artistic existence, I have experienced many crises. That was necessary. Crisis leads to growth, and growth is the best thing we can wish for…
Queen Elizabeth Hall Concert (1969) – Bach, Beethoven & Schubert
BBC Legends BBCL 4045-2
14. Edwin Fischer (1886-1960), Swiss
Edwin Fischer remains one of the most highly regarded musicians of the 20th century. Equally gifted as pianist, conductor and pedagogue, he was largely responsible for reviving interest in the keyboard music of Bach and Mozart at a time when such repertory featured relatively infrequently in concert programmes.
Fischer was also an early pioneer of scholarly performance practice, emphasising the necessity for interpreters to respect the integrity of the musical text. Yet his performances of the great Austro-German Classical and Romantic repertory were anything but sterile academic affairs.
Like Schnabel his playing was never technically flawless but it was blessed with a miraculously rounded tone which retained its warmth both at explosive climactic points in the music and at those moments that call for a beautifully veiled pianissimo.
His pupil Alfred Brendel commented that on the concert platform Fischer’s ‘every fibre seemed to vibrate with elemental musical power’. Noting a parallel with conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, Fischer’s great friend and contemporary, Brendel added that with the pianist ‘one was in more immediate contact with the music: there was no curtain before his soul when he communicated with the audience.’
Thick-set players with thick fleshy hands are predestined for the interpretation of works by composers of similar frame, while tall, long-fingered sinewy players are likewise the best interpreters of the works of similarly constituted composers.
JS Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier
EMI 391 9582
13. Radu Lupu (b. 1945), Romanian
The elusive Romanian pianist rose to fame in the early 1970s after winning some vital competitions, among them the Van Cliburn (1966) and the Leeds (1969) – yet his performance style is far indeed from what we think of as a ‘typical competition winner’.
Lupu is an unpretentious performer, lacking the glitzy veneer of some of his younger colleagues: with the stage presence of a bearded bear, and usually sitting on a chair rather than a piano stool, he presents interpretations that probe deep beneath the surface, eschewing outright virtuoso repertoire in favour of the great Viennese classics. He is one of today’s most profound interpreters of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, masterfully evoking the latter’s other-worldly aesthetic.
His tone is rounded, velvety, the emphasis on songful phrasing and musical empathy; he never ‘plays to the gallery’ but gives audiences the impression that they are sharing in an intimate exchange of ideas. Having studied with, among others, Heinrich Neuhaus at the Moscow Conservatoire, Lupu maintains in his playing a link to the ‘golden age’ pianists.
I would have liked to make a career out of playing nothing but slow movements.
Radu Lupu plays Brahms
Decca 475 7070
12. Ignaz Friedman (1882-1948), Polish
Born in Poland in 1882, Friedman was among the finest ‘golden age’ interpreters of Chopin, and of many other composers too – his innate feel for Chopin’s Polish rhythms and quasi-operatic melodies was second to none.
He was a pupil of the great Polish pianist and teacher Theodor Leschetizky – who once said that Friedman had surpassed him technically – and over the course of a distinguished four-decade career he became a revered teacher himself, as well as a composer, arranger and editor.
Like Alfred Cortot (see No. 5), Friedman had the astonishing ability to transform the sound of the piano into something resembling the human voice. With an expressive and colouristic range that matched his imaginative abilities, an ever-meaningful control of rubato and an emotional directness that goes straight to the heart of both the music and the listener, every account that Friedman has left on disc is a treasure in its own right.
A nerve problem in his left hand forced his retirement in 1943; he died in 1948 in Australia, where he happened to be touring at the outbreak of World War II.
It doesn’t need to be that fast. There is always time.
Ignaz Friedman plays Hummel, Chopin and Beethoven
11. Krystian Zimerman (b. 1956), Polish
Few artists appear so relaxed and at one with the keyboard as Krystian Zimerman. In even the most note-splattered pages of Chopin, Brahms and Liszt, he retains absolute technical composure and clarity. Although his hands are not unusually large, he is blessed with long fingers and a relatively generous span, which helps facilitate his seemingly effortless fluency.
Purity in all things is Zimerman’s watchword. His playing fuses the aristocratic elegance of the ‘golden age’ with contemporary fastidiousness. In his hands fusty interpretative accretions built up over generations are peeled away to reveal pristine musical surfaces. Structures torn asunder by subjective whimsy regain their organic composure. Even the Liszt Sonata, a work notoriously prone to technical and interpretative fracturing, thrillingly unfolds with a bracing sense of inevitability.
Classic filmed recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms concertos (with Bernstein) and
a peerless solo recital of Chopin and Schubert, reveal a piano technique in perfect symbiosis – the fingers miraculously even, the shape of the hands poised at all times, and a sleight-of-hand ability to make the transcendental appear facile.
Music is not sound. Music is using sound to organise emotions in time.
Chopin: Ballades Nos 1–4 etc; Schubert: Impromptus Nos 1-4
DG 073 4449 (DVD)
10. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-95), Italian
The playing of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli featured an unforgettable sonority that was an amalgamation of impeccably controlled, awe-inspiring pianistic mastery, a textural sheen that was practically iridescent, and a warmly resilient tone that could seem to defy the acoustical laws of decay built into the sound of the piano.
(An indication of his approach and preoccupations can be gauged from his refusal to make a studio recording of Ravel’s suite Gaspard de la nuit on the grounds that the piano had not yet been invented that could do this work justice.)
There was a paradoxical quality to his extraordinary artistry as well. His musical sensibility was often punctilious but just as often concerned with presenting the technical surface of the music in the very best light, which led to solutions that drew criticism for being musically mannered.
Often he embodied a strength of commitment that could result in sovereign grandeur and overwhelming energy, yet elsewhere his playing seemed excessively tangible, marmoreal, and spiky rather than evocative.
Michelangeli’s repertory was restricted, honed carefully over many years – certain Mozart concertos and Beethoven sonatas, and works by Schumann (Concerto, Carnaval, Faschingsschwank aus Wien), Brahms (Variations on a theme of Paganini, Ballades Op. 10), Ravel, Debussy (eventually both books of Preludes and Images), Grieg (Concerto), and notably Chopin (Sonata No. 2, F minor Fantasy, G minor Ballade, selected mazurkas and waltzes) turned up repeatedly on his concert programmes.
To play means labour. It means to feel a great ache in the arms and in the shoulders.
Grieg: Piano Concerto (with New Philharmonia/Frühbeck de Burgos)
BBC Legends BBCL 4043-2
9. Martha Argerich (b. 1941), Argentinian
Volatile, explosive, quixotic, astounding and mesmerising – these are some of the adjectives commonly used by critics to describe the music-making of Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich. Undoubtedly one of the most charismatic interpreters of our time, Argerich achieved international recognition at an early age after moving to Europe and winning first prize at the Busoni and Geneva piano competitions in the late 1950s.
A pupil of the provocatively subversive Austrian Friedrich Gulda, whom she still regards as the greatest pianistic influence on her life, she subsequently overwhelmed both jury and audience with her spectacular playing at the 1965 Chopin competition in Warsaw. After undertaking a punishing schedule of recitals during this period, Argerich rejected the notion of pursuing a career as a solo pianist.
According to her former partner, the American pianist Stephen Kovacevich, she simply loathed the idea of being alone on stage and from that time onwards she has focused her attention on playing concertos and chamber music. Her repertory is astonishingly versatile, extending from Bach to Shostakovich and demonstrating a particular commitment to Schumann.
Long-standing partnerships with violinist Gidon Kremer and cellist Mischa Maisky have broadened her musical outlook, Maisky describing performing with her as ‘still the most beautiful experience in the world’.
Notoriously reclusive and reluctant to pander to the conventional publicity hype often attached to contemporary classical musicians, she has been astonishingly generous in nurturing young talent through her annual series of concerts at the Lugano Festival.
I love very much to play the piano, but I don’t like to be a pianist. I don’t like the profession.
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3 (with Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly); Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Bavarian Radio SO/Kirill Kondrashin)
Philips 446 6732
8. Emil Gilels (1916-1985), Russian
Contemporary with Sviatoslav Richter (see No. 4), whom he preceded in the West, and whose superiority to himself he insisted on, Gilels was a very different kind of pianist, though they shared much of the same repertoire. They also shared the same great teacher, Heinrich Neuhaus, and there are recognisable similarities of style. Gilels was not a temperamental performer, though his performances have energy and life.
His Beethoven would be definitive if that term meant anything in relation to such music. But so would his Scarlatti, his Tchaikovsky and certainly his recordings of 20th-century Russian music. More reliable than Richter in turning up for concerts, he gave a huge number, both in the East and West, and his rigorous schedule killed him.
His recordings above all show his wonderful fullness of tone, his command of long paragraphs, and often an astonishing delicacy. His Brahms concertos with Eugen Jochum are a recording for the ages, his Grieg Lyric Pieces a revelation.
The imagination comes in when the spirit comes together with the fantasy. Of course, the technique must be there, but the imagination must go with it.
Grieg: Lyric Pieces
DG 449 7212
7. Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), Austrian
In his heyday, Austrian-born Artur Schnabel was revered as the leading exponent of the Beethoven piano sonatas; he was the first to record them all and his interpretations set the benchmark. Sixty years after his death he is still revered by fellow pianists and connoisseurs of the piano.
A virtuoso in the mould of Horowitz (No. 3) he certainly was not – if you are looking for pianistic fireworks and breathtaking accuracy, Schnabel is not your man. His teacher, Theodor Leschetizky, remarked to the 12-year-old Artur: ‘You will never be a pianist, for you are a musician.’
His playing may be described as honest and unvarnished and, occasionally, careless, as some recordings have more than their fair share of smudged, wrong or missed notes – like those of his great contemporary, Edwin Fischer, who joked that he collected them. Composer Arnold Schoenberg once commented, ‘… his concerts were communions. And when the audience dispersed, it was with a feeling of having been cleansed.’ Listening to any Schubert played by Schnabel, it’s easy to understand what Schoenberg meant.
His repertoire was limited to those composers with whom he felt most empathy, namely Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms and, like Otto Klemperer’s finest performances of the Beethoven symphonies, there is in Schnabel’s interpretations not only granite strength but also a simplicity which puts music first and ego last. Taking the stone analogy further, Schnabel’s playing reminds one of the Renaissance artist Michelangelo’s unfinished Pietà where the marks of the chisel are very much evidence of work in progress.
Music is one of the performing arts with which, in exercise, one can be alone, entirely alone.
Schubert: Impromptus D899 & 935
EMI 586 8332
6. Dinu Lipatti (1917-50), Romanian
Lipatti’s soundworld, articulated by an infinitesimal range of dynamics, colours and textures, would alone have guaranteed him a place among the piano immortals. The exquisite, fine-graded subtleties of his Bach B flat Partita, for example, are so numerous that one can only sit slack-jawed at the speed and detail of his superhuman reflexes.
Yet what really sets his playing apart is that every inflection appears to arise naturally from the inner soul of the music. It is this tantalising fusion of supreme technical sophistication and disarming naturalness which lies at the heart of his captivating artistry. For Lipatti, music was something to be lived through and breathed like creative oxygen.
One felt the same intuitive sense of contact with every composer he chose to play, whether it was the world-weariness that lies behind Mozart’s most frivolous gestures, or the emotional complexity of Chopin's waltzes.
In 1947, at the very height of his career, Lipatti was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and died three years later at 33. ‘Lipatti had the qualities of a saint,’ wrote his record producer Walter Legge. ‘His goodness and generosity evoked faith, hope and charity in all those around him.’
Music has to live under our fingers, under our eyes, in our heart and mind with all we can offer them.
JS Bach: Partita No. 1
EMI 567 0032
5. Alfred Cortot (1877-1962), Swiss/French
If you want your piano-playing to be merely note-perfect, then practise all day. But to make music a matter of life and death, to feel from the inside the drama, passion and eloquence with which notes and poetry unite into an art form, try spending your formative years as repetiteur at Bayreuth, and conduct the Paris premiere of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Not that that job, which he held from 1898 to 1901, nor that opera, given in 1902, wholly explain the genius of Alfred Cortot. Nobody has played like him since; probably no one did before, either.
But Cortot’s reputation has been sullied by two unfortunate issues. First, his tally of wrong notes is uncomfortably high for those reared in our phonographically disinfected age. Secondly, during World War II he held a position as High Commissioner of the Fine Arts in the Vichy government.
He may not have been the ‘best’ pianist by today’s examined standards, but he was still one of the most profound, sensitive and genuine musicians of his time and beyond. His musical concepts were on a transcendent scale that few have matched. Besides, Cortot was more than just a great pianist: he was a lynchpin of his cultural world.
Born in Switzerland in 1877, he studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Louis Diémer and Emile Descombes, who had known Chopin. Fauré, director of the Conservatoire, appointed him a professor there in 1907; Cortot subsequently taught such artists as Clara Haskil, Dinu Lipatti, Vlado Perlemuter and Samson François.
From 1905 he formed a renowned trio with violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablo Casals. And besides writing a number of books and essays on matters musical and pianistic, he made editions of piano music by Chopin and Schumann that are still revered.
Aside from the wrong notes, his technique was prodigious, especially in the vital quality of fine, beautiful tone production. When you listen to him, whether in Chopin or Schubert, Beethoven or Fauré, you hear not just a piece of music, but a private opera of the soul.
The interpreter’s art – at least for the man who does not intend to restrict it to the barren successes of instrumental virtuosity – has as its essential aim the transmission of the feelings or impressions which a musical idea reflects.
Schumann: Piano Concerto (with LPO/Landon Ronald)
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 (with LPO/John Barbirolli)
4. Sviatoslav Richter (1915-97), Russian
Regarded by many as the greatest pianist of the second half of the 20th century, Richter’s ancestry was German, but he only performed in the West for the first time in 1960. He already had a prodigious reputation, thanks to LPs, and the expectations of him were phenomenal. A highly sensitive artist, he loathed the limelight (literally – in his later years he performed on a darkened stage), and much preferred playing in a barn in France – his favourite venue, once the geese were evacuated – to any large concert hall.
His favourite composer was Wagner, who wrote no significant piano music. Richter’s repertoire was perhaps the most enormous of any pianist, though he hated ‘completism’ and never performed, for instance, Beethoven’s Second, Fourth or Fifth Piano Concertos, or some of Chopin's Preludes, while giving astounding performances of the rest.
He was a friend of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, both of whom wrote works for him, and Britten, with whom he played duets. He tells us that for one period of his concert career he was inseparable from a pink plastic lobster which he would leave in the wings where he could see it when he went onstage.
It is hard to characterise his playing, since he immersed himself so deeply in the music that it sometimes seems we’re hearing the composer directly. That’s the case with Bach, Handel, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt and the Russian composers; he is more idiosyncratic in Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.
After the early 1970s he refused to record in the studio, but many of his concerts were recorded, and there are more CDs of him than of any other pianist; he loathed most of his own performances, and at the end of the great documentary (on DVD) Richter: The Enigma, made in 1995, he says ‘I don’t like myself. That’s it.’
I don’t like pianos – I like music more.
Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2 (with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Stanislav Wislocki)
DG 477 8584
3. Vladimir Horowitz (1903-89), Russian
When Horowitz emerged from Kiev to begin his international career in the 1920s he struck many as a direct link to the 19th-century Russian school exemplified by Anton Rubinstein, known for his free approach to rhythm, dynamics, and phrasing.
For the next three decades, until his 12-year retirement from live concerts (1953-65), Horowitz practically defined pianistic virtuosity, but not in the wild-haired, swooning manner of a Paderewski; this lion of the keyboard was lithe, modern in dress, and quiet in his demeanour.
His thundering octaves in Tchaikovsky’s First and Rachmaninov’s Third concertos, or the Liszt B minor Sonata won him huge fortunes and the attention of the musical world, but gradually Horowitz tired of ‘the octaves race’, and began searching for repertoire that would provide him and his audiences with more intellectual stimulation.
For his much-anticipated return to the stage at Carnegie Hall in 1965, he opened with Bach (albeit arranged by Busoni) and Schumann’s C major Fantasy, saving Chopin for the second half. Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart and Clementi were now constants on his programmes, as well as Scriabin and Rachmaninov. Not surprisingly, Horowitz’s rhapsodic approach to Mozart and Haydn was closer in spirit to the historically informed performances of today than to the rigid scorebound approaches of his contemporaries.
The most recognisable aspect of Horowitz’s tone was its range of colour and its physicality. Even his softest playing had body, while his loudest was always crystal clear. In every phrase, a wealth of dynamic and rhythmic shadings was framed in a constantly changing yet logical pulse, a pure bel canto approach reminiscent of the great Italian baritone Mattia Battistini, whom Horowitz idolised.
Never content to rest on his laurels, Horowitz, like his father-in-law Toscanini, always searched for more truthful interpretations – try listening to his many recordings of Chopin's B minor Scherzo, each one differently paced, and with inner voices differently balanced. Horowitz was dubbed ‘the Last Romantic’, but in many ways he was the supreme classicist, with head and heart in equipoise.
Perfection itself is imperfection.
The Indispensable: Chopin, Rachmaninov, Liszt, Scriabin and Scarlatti
2. Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982), Polish
If there was an award for the pianist who came closest to the artistic ideal in the widest repertoire, it would almost certainly go to Rubinstein. Whether playing Fauré or Brahms, Albéniz or Beethoven, Ravel or Schubert, the results were sublime. Yet he is most celebrated for his Chopin, whose aristocratic poise and elegance found a perfect match in Rubinstein’s own interpretative genius.
His golden tone, exquisite sense of timing and sensitivity to phrase and structure were tailor-made for the nocturnes, waltzes and mazurkas. Yet remarkably he sustained that same level of musical intuitiveness and profound eloquence throughout the more heated virtuosity of the concertos, scherzos, ballades, preludes, sonatas and polonaises.
There was seemingly nothing that Rubinstein could not play at the highest levels of distinction, from concertos and solo recitals to forming two ‘million dollar’ piano trios, first with Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Feuermann and then with Henryk Szeryng and Pierre Fournier, with whom he made outstanding recordings of Brahms, Schubert and Schumann.
Most of us now associate Rubinstein with the accumulated wisdom and autumnal glow of his stereo era recordings (from the late 1950s), yet when he first emerged on the scene at the turn of the 20th century, it was as a prodigy of electrifying virtuosity and élan.
Incredibly, as witness sublime video recordings of concertos by Grieg, Saint-Saëns, Chopin, Beethoven and Brahms, he was still playing like an angel in his eighties. Rubinstein was one of the most widely recorded of pianists, although his love affair with the gramophone got off to a shaky start when he refused to record for the early acoustic process as he felt it made the piano ‘sound like a banjo’.
If modern trends have moved towards finding absolute solutions to technical and interpretative challenges, Rubinstein was a spontaneous musician to his fingertips. ‘On stage I will take a chance. There has to be an element of daring in great music-making,’ he once insisted, and this extended to his relaxed approach to practising (in the early 1930s he even took some time out in order to refine his technique).
Having a photographic memory proved a special boon, particularly when he came to give his first performance of Franck’s tricky Symphonic Variations, which he learned on the train journey to the venue, working out the fingerings on his knee-caps!
We must transmit what these great compositions express. It is our gift to be able to transmit to an innocent and ignorant public.
Chopin: 21 Nocturnes
RCA 09026 630492
1. Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943), Russian
What would we know of Rachmaninov’s playing if his recordings did not exist? Much could be deduced from the music he wrote. There is the vast range of virtuoso technical resource, with implied power and stamina to match. The melancholic lyrical gift would be self-evident. So would the incisive rhythmic instinct – and, to judge from the later works at least, the tight-reined clarity with which Rachmaninov the pianist would unerringly shape one musical paragraph after another.
The recordings confirm all this. And they also tell us both more and less. Without them it would be impossible to know quite how phenomenal Rachmaninov's rhythmic gift was – at once ultra-precise and springily propulsive, not unlike Prokofiev’s, but unleashing a momentum that’s less motor-driven, more like a tidal surge. This was surely the quality that enabled everything else to be so special – the way that a phrase spontaneously tugs against, or yields to the underlying pulse, so that every musical option seems possible.
The tonal quality, too, is spellbinding. The opening bars of the G flat major Prelude (which you will hear on the set below) are among the simplest Rachmaninov wrote, yet you know at once you’re in the presence of something extraordinary.
How many other pianists could phrase the right-hand’s repeated chord-pattern with that kind of suppleness, or bring such fullness and focus to the left-hand melody? In an interview in 1936, Rachmaninov said: ‘Interpretation demands something of the creative instinct. If you are a composer, you have an affinity with other composers… knowing something of their problems and their ideals. You can give their works colour… So you make music live. Without colour it is dead.’
What the recordings can’t tell us is how the younger Rachmaninov played. Before he left revolutionary Russia in 1918, he seems mainly to have performed his own piano music, alongside much composing and conducting. Afterwards, life in Europe and America meant a full-time piano career, and with it the need to build a repertory. Bach, Beethoven (notably the Appassionata), Borodin, Chopin, Debussy, Grieg, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann (Carnaval was another favourite) and Tchaikovsky all came to feature in Rachmaninov programmes besides his own works. He would practise for up to 15 hours a day and toured extensively.
All of this seems to have been his way of dealing with the personal tragedy of his uprooting from Russia. So, evidently, was the famous public reserve, reflected in his contained, expressionless manner at the keyboard. Stravinsky, who once referred to his compatriot and fellow-exile as ‘a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl’, also remarked less waspishly: ‘His silence looms as a noble contrast to the self-approbations which are the only conversation of all performing and most other musicians. And, he was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace. That is a great deal.’
But had it always been like that? We shouldn’t forget the unmistakable roguish streak that emerges in the Mendelssohn and Musorgsky transcriptions. And did Rachmaninov play rather more expansively in his earlier days, as a work like the Second Piano Concerto suggests? Meanwhile the recorded legacy presents its own evidence. After hearing one of Liszt's more devastating performances (of Beethoven's ‘Emperor’ Concerto), Wagner remarked that pianism of this order ‘annihilates everything else’. Rachmaninov's playing has the capacity to leave you with the same impression.
I have never been quite able to make up my mind as to which was my true calling – that of a composer, pianist, or conductor. These doubts assail me to this day.
Sergey Rachmaninov: His Complete Recordings
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.