The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Who are the best pianists of all time? And which ones do you think were left off the list by Classic FM? | September 16, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

The British radio station and website Classic FM recently published its list of the 25 greatest pianists of all time.

Plus, the website also included samples of the playing where possible.

It is an impressive list, if pretty predictable — and heavily weighted towards modern or contemporary pianists. You might expect that a list of “all-time greats” would have more historical figures — and more women as well as more non-Western Europeans and non-Americans, especially Asians these days.

Here is a link:

So The Ear started what turned out to be a long list of others who should at least be considered and maybe even included.

Here, then, is the question for this weekend: What do you think of the list? Which pianists do not belong on the list? And which are your favorite pianists who are not included in the compilation?

Leave your candidate or candidates in the COMMENT section with a link to a YouTube link of a favorite performance, wherever possible.

Happy listening!


  1. One final note. I like Bill Lute’s idea of listing pianists who were wonderful accompanists (which, of course, requires special skills).

    I agree with his picks and would add: the Russian Alexander Zakin who was Isaac Stern’s partner and was also a really terrific person. I met him and Stern after they gave a concert at the UW Union many years ago.

    Both very classy people. And Zakin was a wonder on the piano. Here’s a link to Zakin:

    Comment by fflambeau — September 17, 2017 @ 12:23 am

    • Also terrific pianists: Radu Lupu, Zoltán Kocsis, Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, Hélène Grimaud, and Pascal Rogé.

      Note the French are particularly undervalued on the British list!

      Comment by fflambeau — September 17, 2017 @ 12:34 am

      • Good heavens! To have omitted Radu Lupu, one of our favorites. Likewise the brilliant late Zoltan Kocsis. Thank you for the welcome dose of Francophilia to counterbalance the Brits…

        Addressing again the point of lists, or listlessness for that matter – they draw attention by virtue of what they omit perhaps more than for what they include. The more one loves something, such as pianists, and piano playing, the more the idea of the limiting oneself to a list becomes crazy. It is like falling in love with a great city (Paris?) and deciding that you could only spend 3 days there in your lifetime. Of course, we should be lucky to spend any amount of time with something beautiful and enduring…but lucky the person who does not suffer from such limitations.

        Also, greatness is not necessary the same thing as fame. Agree? “Greatness” is a matter of a wide-spread perception of something or someone who has achieved a unique, irreplaceable stature – and is perceived by at least more than himself to have earned that assessment. Fame is a function of promotion, by oneself, but more often by others, and the nature of the zeitgeist. In truth, I’m sorry to say, I don’t think there are any very famous classical pianists today, great or otherwise…most people in the world could not name a single classical musician, let alone an “important” pianist, past or present. That makes those of us who care about such things a bit sad – but we each have some capacity to choose those things that are important to us – even as we realize that others are often choosing them for us, like it or not!

        Thank you for your contributions, and to you Jake for posting this link. May I add, I am a devoted lover of the music of Haydn. Considering to whom I am addressing this ,I felt it worth a mention! Cheers.

        Comment by Bill Lutes — September 17, 2017 @ 10:24 am

  2. In general, the ones I would have picked are there — I thought it was a good idea to include Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt, purely on the basis of extensive testimonials to their prowess (on the other hand, I wouldn’t include Mozart). Since this is a British assessment, that would account for the presence of Ogdon, Barenboim, and Hess. To me, conspicuous by their absence were many of the “big guns” from 1900 – 1950 or so — I would have expected a few in addition to Arrau (I believe Arrau is especially revered in Britain). Bill Lutes thoroughly addressed the question here — most appreciated!

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — September 16, 2017 @ 11:51 am

    • Claudio Arrau was an amazing pianist. His Chopin in particular. Another South American who I think is in the same class: Nelson Freire.

      Comment by fflambeau — September 17, 2017 @ 12:12 am

  3. Woops, forgot Paul Lewis!

    Comment by Bill Lutes — September 16, 2017 @ 10:14 am

  4. My wife and I are both pianists and teachers, and agree with most of the obvious choices on this list, while (naturally) wondering about the inclusion of certain others (Jean-Yves Thibaudet, for example).
    Here is a short list of names that could comprise a second list of pianists who are equal (in our estimation) to the significance of the ones you posted:

    contemporary old(er) masters: Andras Schiff, Richard Goode, Emanuel Ax, Garrick Ohlsson, Marc Andre Hamelin, Grigory Sokolov, Angela Hewitt, Kristian Zimmerman

    contemporary young(er) masters: Yuja Wang, Evgeny Kissin, Boris Berezovsky, Alexander Melikov, Jonathan Biss, Jeremy Denk, Arcadi Volodos,
    Danil Trifonof, Igor Levit, Benjamin Grosvenor, many more.

    recent old masters (no longer active, or living):
    Leon Fleischer, Gary Graffman, John Browning, Van Cliburn, Alicia de Larrocha, Rudolf Serkin, Emil Gilels,
    Annie Fischer, Clifford Curzon, Jorge Bolet, Earl Wilde,
    Gina Bachauer, Eugene Istomin, Lili Kraus, Shura Cherkassky, Charles Rosen, Georgy Cziffra, Robert Casadesus, Mieczyskaw Horszowski, Leonard Bernstein (yes!) and our dear Howard Karp

    great masters pre 1950’s who can be heard on recording (top of mind):

    Artur Schnabel
    Alfred Cortot,
    Edwin Fischer
    William Kapell
    Dinu Lipatti,
    Joseph Hoffmann
    Ignaz Paderewski
    Josef and Rosina Lhevinne
    Walter Gieskeking
    Wanda Landowska (yes she was a great pianist too)

    Special category:
    Accompanists, chamber pianists
    Gerald Moore, Roger Vignoles, Graham Johnson, Geoffrey Parsons, Malcolm Martineau, Julius Drake, Dalton Baldwin, Warren Jones, Martin Katz
    Menahem Pressler,Hephzibah Menuhin, Franz Rupp

    pre-recording age:
    too many to list

    Thanks to fflambeau for mentioning Michelangeli
    and pointing out the questionable value of making lists.
    Still, it is fun to think of how many glorious pianists there are…and were!

    Comment by Bill Lutes — September 16, 2017 @ 10:09 am

    • I like your list (although I find the whole idea laughable).

      Someone who should also be included if you believe in lists: Nelson Freire but he’s from Brazil and that’s a long way to London.

      I sent a YouTube of him playing something to a young professional pianist I know (who is too young to know Freire). He was amazed at his technique and asked me who this guy was and why he never heard of him.

      The Brits for all their good points are the most insular people you will ever find.

      That explains pretty much the lack of Americans on their list too. Lenny was a great pianist and so was Gershwin.

      Your list is much better than the one published and linked to.

      UW has had its share of great pianists too (in addition to the ones mentioned): I remember Paul Badura-Skoda and Gunnar Johansen (I heard both play while at UW).

      Comment by fflambeau — September 17, 2017 @ 12:07 am

    • Didn’t Leon Fleischer play a concert at UW last year? He belongs on any list.

      Comment by fflambeau — September 17, 2017 @ 12:09 am

  5. I started reading the British list. Their first person listed: from Norway, Leif Ove Andsnes. Sorry, never heard of him. He was probably just a concession to the non-Brits anyway.

    Myra Hess? But of course, she was British and that explains that.

    I like Brigitte Engerer myself. And someone like Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, as well.

    And for an all time list not to include someone like Busoni? What about Chopin and Ravel too?

    Oh well, it’s all nonsense anyway. Because some of the people on the list have never been heard or have ever been recorded. So there is no means of comparison.

    Comment by fflambeau — September 16, 2017 @ 7:05 am

  6. Well, I can’t resist nominating our own great pianist, Christopher Taylor.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — September 16, 2017 @ 5:48 am

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