The greatest classical pianists of all time aren’t just virtuosos; they are musicians who changed how others think about music. Being an exceptional classical pianist takes a rare combination of technical brilliance and dedication to the craft. The pianists on this list are some of the finest examples of that rare combination who ever sat down at a piano.
My piano education began with classical music; over 20 years later, I still have the same affection for it.
I didn’t dedicate myself solely to classical music as most greats did, and I wouldn’t have matched their virtuosic prowess even if I had.
But, as a student, I took so much from classical music into my journey through other genres, and it helped me immeasurably.
How I chose the greatest classical pianists?
Classical music spanned many periods; we also have the recorded era and everything that came before. The pianists on my list all have at least two things in common: they are virtuosic talents and have inspired others profoundly.
I could say the same of many pianists who didn’t make my list. So, I chose pianists I consider to be more than virtuosos; they embody technical brilliance and a unique creative mind.
I chose pianists who display a unique understanding or use of various musical elements, such as rhythm, phrasing, timing, harmony, and expression.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943)
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor is one of the most beautiful piano concertos ever, while his piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor is among the most challenging. The legendary composer, known to practice up to 15 hours per day, produced a body of work unlike any other.
Many people discuss Rachmaninoff’s physical advantages of having a hand span of approximately 12 inches. Of course, this incredible reach is advantageous, but it doesn’t account for his lyrical and rhythmic genius.
Rachmaninoff had an unparalleled ability to perform the most physically demanding passages with impeccable rhythm and absolute clarity without sounding mechanical. He also displayed a sensibility that is sometimes lost amid the sheer virtuosic prowess of his music.
Few composers wrote melodies as moving and emotive as Sergei Rachmaninoff. He was a piano virtuoso in every possible way.
Arthur Rubinstein (1887 – 1982)
Arthur Rubinstein is the epitome of a prodigal talent who played with the Berlin Philharmonic at just 13 years old. At the age of 10, Rubinstein moved from Warsaw to Berlin, and while I can’t confirm when it was first noted, he was already known to have perfect pitch and a photographic memory.
He studied under Karl Heinrich Barth, a star pupil of Franz Liszt, and the violinist/conductor Joseph Joachim (Brahms collaborator). These teachers, both incredible musicians, helped cultivate the young Rubinstein’s prodigious talent.
Arthur Rubinstein became part of perhaps the most impressive lineage of all: Rubinstein -Barth – Liszt – Czerny – Beethoven.
Rubinstein could play everything, no matter how technically challenging. But his remarkable sense of timing and phrasing was perfect for waltzes. The sophisticated pianist is perhaps most celebrated for his Chopin performances.
Sviatoslav Richter (1915 – 1997)
Sviatoslav Richter is arguably one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. Richter often displayed a more profound love for music than the piano itself, citing Wagner as his favorite composer.
Throughout his career, Richter performed a vast repertoire that dwarfed that of his peers. Notable performances include works from Chopin, Beethoven, and duets with Britten.
Although many of his performances were recorded, Richter shied away from the limelight in the recording studio and on the stage. Richter opted to perform on a darkened stage and, for periods, avoided concert halls entirely.
It’s not uncommon for musicians to share a level of insecurity, but Richter’s self-loathing, in some way, allowed him to capture and share vulnerability in his playing more than anyone else.
Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)
Franz Liszt reached a level of fame and adoration that very few musicians of his era achieved. At his peak, what became known as Lisztomania saw the young pianist attract crowds like a modern-day pop star.
Many regarded Liszt as the greatest virtuoso of the 19th century, although Chopin could also claim that title. The professional rivalry between Liszt and Chopin seemed to motivate both men to reach new heights.
Lizst wrote some notoriously difficult works, perhaps most notably, La Campanella. The difficulty of many of his piano works makes him one of the most revered and studied pianists and composers ever. Despite his flare for complexity, Liszt is as celebrated as a teacher as a performer.
Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)
Sadly, Chopin’s time came and went before the recorded era, so we have no recordings of his playing. However, you can conclude a reasonable amount about his ability from his composition and reputation.
According to his peers, Chopin was one of the greatest virtuosos, if not the greatest, of the 19th century. During his short life, Chopin was a giant of the Romantic period and possibly the finest example of cantabile playing (in a singing style).
The influence of Chopin on every classical pianist to come after him is the truest measure of his legacy. Some of the greatest pianists in the world have built an entire career on playing Chopin’s works.
Chopin’s originality and expressive style made him one of the greats. His Scherzo No. 2 is an excellent example of his love of expression and dynamics.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Mozart is perhaps the most commonly known name in classical music. As a pianist and composer, Mozart earned his place in musical history with an almost ethereal talent. Mozart was also one of his or any generation’s most prolific composers.
While we have no recordings of Mozart, he left a body of work that is more varied and versatile than most. Much of Mozart’s work showcased his playful side, with pieces like Rondo Alla Turca and Allegro being delightfully whimsical.
The beauty of Mozart’s personality is that it highlighted his ability to commit fully to the character of any given piece. What I mean by that is whether compositions are playful, solemn, or dark, they are bold, confident, and full of drama.
If you want to challenge yourself, have a go at Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 18 (K. 576), a sublime example of counterpoint.
Clara Schumann (1819 – 1896)
Perhaps not as widely renowned today as her composer husband, Robert Schumann, Clara was the better pianist of the two. Clara Schumann’s talent was held in such high regard she became one of the most appreciated pianists of the 19th century.
It was a formidable achievement for any pianist, but especially for a female in an era dominated by male performers, led by the likes of Liszt and Chopin.
Clara Schumann performed like a composer, and what I mean by that is that she didn’t waste notes. Many performers give in to the temptation of playing something flashy just because they can. Schumann had impeccable taste; if she played something complex, it was because the piece demanded it.
With that impeccable taste, she was also a master of expression with a beautiful touch. She was a virtuoso, but her ability to make such sophisticated musical choices set her apart from many other virtuoso performers. Clara Schumann was one of the most important pianists of the Romantic era.
Myra Hess (1890 – 1965)
Dame Myra Hess was a pianist who achieved more than most at a very young age. At age 12, she was granted a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London. By age 17, she performed with the legendary conductor Sir Thomas Beecham.
Myra Hess is probably most famous for performing the works of Mozart, J.S. Bach, and Beethoven. She had an incredible ability to accurately mimic the greats who came before her and typically chose to perform the most demanding pieces. However, she always allowed her personality to shine through in her performances.
Her talent had a nonchalant quality that made her playing look effortless, perhaps because fame and accolades were never her motivation. Myra Hess performed for free around 150 times in the National Gallery in London during WW2 in a run that became the jewel in her legacy and a much-needed symbol of unity.
Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)
Debussy is one of my personal favorites and one of Hollywood’s go-to composers when a score needs some dreamlike or triumphant piano music.
Debussy had a beautifully delicate touch on the piano but wasn’t afraid to be big and bold either. His ability to blend dark, light, heavy, and soft seamlessly is why his works lend themselves well to storytelling.
The dreamlike character of much of his work doesn’t just come from his control of dynamics; it comes from extensive use of the whole tone scale. Debussy is credited as one of the first to utilize the whole tone scale so prominently, and you can hear it in Voiles from his first book of preludes.
As one of the most celebrated impressionist pianists, Debussy continues to inspire new generations to explore and create without limits.
Glenn Gould (1932 – 1982)
I didn’t include J.S. Bach because, while he’s one of the most important composers of all time, he wasn’t primarily a pianist. But Glenn Gould is arguably the best interpreter of J.S. Bach’s works for keyboard.
Glenn Gould’s first recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations has as much impact today as it had on release in 1955. Gould’s interpretation of Bach is brilliant and without comparison. In contrast to the incredibly nuanced and painstakingly measured quality of his Bach performances, Gould was an eccentric fellow.
His eccentricities, such as wearing an overcoat and gloves in extremely warm weather, and his reclusive nature have heightened the interest in him over time. Some of the more playful eccentricities can be heard in his playing, most notably in his Mozart, although still undeniably virtuosic.
His ideas on various elements of music were ahead of their time, and as a pianist, his genius is undeniable.
I understand that my list is subjective with so many amazing classical pianists, but I think we have some worthy names above. Whether classical music is your first choice or not, I encourage all aspiring pianists to listen to the artists above and take every lesson you can from them.