The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music poll: Who were the 10 greatest pianists of all time? | August 7, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

An interesting and accomplished monthly Australian magazine – Limelight Magazine (below) – is devoted to classical music and the fine arts in the Land Down Under. Limelight recently polled contemporary well-known concert pianists today and asked them to name the Top Ten Pianists of All-Time. But what I do find funny, and even questionable or suspect, is that they all equated the qualifier “Of All Time” with the 20th century. Partisans of Arthur RubinsteinVladimir Horowitz and Rudolf Serkin might also find some grounds for minor disagreement. And feminists will almost certainly object to the sexist list, which completely excludes women, including such talents Guiomar Novaes, Teresa Careno and Martha Argerich (below).

Granted, perhaps that is because we do not possess recordings of certain figures. But you might think that, even without recordings as documents, someone might name, say, Chopin (below top) and Liszt (below bottom) as among the most accomplished pianists of all time.

Some of you might also be a bit disappointed in how such titanic figures as Claudio Arrau (below), Josef Hoffmann and Leopold Godowsky rate in the listing.

Take a look for yourself:,the-10-greatest-pianists-of-all-time.aspx/0

Published since 2003, the Australian magazine itself — given the home country’s geographical location — understandably has a lot to say about the classical music scene in Asia and about less well-known names of performers and compositions. It is worth checking out. It seems to publish a lot of Top Ten lists and features rarely heard performers, groups and compositions.

Here is a link to its home website:

And be sure to leave your own nominations for the Best Pianists of All Time in the COMMENT section.


  1. Sviatoslav Richter, of course, If we don’t count Rachmaninoff himself. But, as an interpreter Richter, I think, was the best.


    Comment by Smile Tomind — December 18, 2012 @ 5:11 am

  2. Well, here is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I have done extensive research in this area as well. So, on to the critique of the Aussie list, which is quite wrong-headed, I will say at the outset.
    Schnabel at 10. Sorry, I have the recordings on the Pearl label, He plays faster than he can execute, all the time. in his day he was known as an Adagio player.
    Kempff at 9. Great, yes, all-time great, no. Simple as that.
    Brendel at 8. He plays like a machine, jeez! The article claims he never sounds academic or dry. Come on, he ALWAYS sounds that way. Recordings on the DG and Vox labels. Great musical mind, though…
    Gould at 7. I can go there. He changed the way people play, listen, and record. That is a paradigm change, and gets him on the List. recordings on the CBS/Sony and DG labels.
    Cortot at 6. No WAY! He was an influential musician and educator, but his own playing, besides all the wrong notes, was as eccentric as Paderewski. Recordings on EMI.Paderewski CD’s are out there as well.
    Gilels at 5. Again, great, yes, but all-time great, no. Recordings on DG and CBS/Sony. Look for DVD’s of many of these “great” 20th century players as well.
    Artur Rubenstein at 4. Well, maybe not 4, but he gets on the list. The longevity of his career is a benchmark. The breadth of his repertoire was also unmatched in his day. Garrick Ohlsson is his heir. Recordings of AR on DG and CBS/Sony. DVD video abounds.
    Richter at 3. Now we’re talkin’…SR made music with a ferocity that must have been similar to Beethoven. His career had an eccentric end, but what a beginning and middle! Recordings on DG and other labels. DVD is available. He had NO Fear! This is a quality he shares with Horowitz, but Horowitz had to work to stay in the Fearless Zone. SR was Born there.
    Horowitz at 2. Well, he and Rachmaninoff are the endpoint, the pinnacle of a certain Lisztian school. recordings on RCA and DG labels. What pianists are the culmination of the Chopin, Viennese Classical, or modern modes of performance?
    Rachmaninoff at 1. Well, he was a reluctant pianist who turned to performance when he emigrated to the USA, and found that his composing was floundering. The Moscow Conservatory training he brought to bear was the REAL No.1 element. recordings on the RCA and BMG labels.
    So, to continue, (sorry…) I think the Game-Changers belong on the Top Ten List. Mozart was the first player to sponsor his own concerts, and of his own music! Beethoven was the first player to make expression of personal feeling equal to the composer’s score. Liszt was the first player to use a whole-body technique, rather than a finger-oriented approach. He invented the solo recital.
    Chopin wrote for the piano exclusively. He played in public as little as he could get away with, yet he profoundly influenced the use of dynamics, rubato, and the sustain pedal.
    The Romantic Era had many great players. Yet, the composers of piano music who were themselves pianists have not come down to us as great performers. Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Weber must have been wonderful players, but Moscheles, Dussek, Thalberg, etc. are the players of that era who were famous in their day. We are only unaware of them because there are no recordings. This is the main flaw in the Aussie list. Asking modern-day artists to name the Top Ten invites them to name their own teachers and influences, for self-aggrandizement, if nothing else.
    So, the last 6 on MY list. Gould, A. Rubenstein, and Richter were all game-changers. Prokofiev made percussive piano an artistic option, over the strenuous objections of his teachers. Who to name as the all-time Greatest? Well, who changed the game the most, who has made the most indelible stamp on performing, such that everyone who tries to make a career must acknowledge their contribution and influence. I think that Horowitz must take precedence over Rachmaninoff in this respect. Rach’s music will live forever as repertoire, but his playing, however marvelous, is just not as influential. Most people don’t play his music the way he did. This factor alone bears out my point. Josef Hoffman, Leopold Godowsky. Ararrau, Gilels, Kissin, Michaelangeli, the list of prodigies goes on and on. Yet, besides Michaelangeli’s reputation for accuracy, no one of these players has changed the Rules of the Game as much as the historical figures did, whose contributions as players is as long-lasting and as deeply felt as their compositions.
    MBB, with apologies for length…


    Comment by Michael BB — August 7, 2012 @ 10:54 am

    • Hi Michael,
      Your detailed critique makes great sense to me.
      Don’t you wonder why today’s great performing artists and concert pianists could not come up with some of the same criteria and names that you did?
      I think their sentimentality and loyalty to teachers and inspirations got in the way of a more objective and historical assessment.
      Thank you.


      Comment by welltemperedear — August 7, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

      • Yes, I do wonder, and yes, their experience with today’s “greats”, their mentors, clouded their judgments. They all play better than I do, but I know why and how to make that judgment, at least.
        Great link and discussion topic, keep’em rolling…


        Comment by Michael BB — August 7, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

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