The 25 best pianists of all time

6 June 2024, 17:28 | Updated: 10 June 2024, 17:45

Glenn Gould, Mitsuko Uchida, Yuja Wang: exploring the 25 greatest pianists of all time
Glenn Gould, Mitsuko Uchida, Yuja Wang: exploring the 25 greatest pianists of all time. Picture: Getty/Alamy
Classic FM

By Classic FM

The piano is one of the most popular musical instruments, but who plays it best? These are the 25 greatest to ever tickle the ivories...

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From Liszt to Lang Lang, many of the greatest musicians both past and present have been immensely skilled pianists. But with so much competition in the field, it takes a truly special piano player to sparkle above the rest.

Whether nimble-fingered technical experts, first-rate musical interpreters, or champions of the keyboard far and wide, these 25 pianists from history through to modern-day are the true masters of the 88 keys (listed alphabetically).

Read more: The 20 best piano concertos of all time

  1. Leif Ove Andsnes (1970-)

    The brilliant Norwegian pianist has made a name for himself as one of the greatest musicians working today, not least due to his recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. With 11 Grammy nominations to his name, and the somewhat dubious title of ‘Best Fingers’ according to Vanity Fair in 2004, Andsnes is one of the most exciting and evocative pianists on the world stage today.

    Beethoven's cadenza for Mozart's Piano Concerto No.20

  2. Martha Argerich (1941-)

    The world woke up to the phenomenal talent of Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich in 1964 when she won the International Piano Competition at the age of 24. 60 years on from that historic global debut, Argerich is arguably the greatest living pianist and can sell out concerts in minutes. A once-in-a-generation talent.

    Read more: Martha Argerich: 11 stunning photos of the great pianist

    Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 | Martha Argerich, Charles Dutoit & the Verbier Festival Orchestra

  3. Claudio Arrau (1903-1991)

    It’s said that this great Chilean pianist could read music before he could read words. It wasn’t long before he was playing works like the virtuosic Transcendental Etudes by Liszt. He’s perhaps best-known for his interpretations of the music of Beethoven. The legendary conductor Colin Davis said of Arrau: “His sound is amazing, and it is entirely his own… His devotion to Liszt is extraordinary. He ennobles that music in a way no one else in the world can.”

    Read more: The 15 greatest pieces by Franz Liszt

    Beethoven "Moonlight Sonata" (1 mvt.) by Claudio Arrau

  4. Vladimir Ashkenazy (1937-)

    Vladimir Ashkenazy is one of the heavyweights of the classical music world. Born in Russia, Ashkenazy was joint winner of the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962, before leaving the USSR to live in London the following year. He now holds both Icelandic and Swiss citizenships and performs as a pianist and conductor around the world.

    His vast catalogue of recordings includes the complete piano works of Rachmaninov and Chopin, the complete sonatas of Beethoven, Mozart’s piano concertos as well as works by Scriabin, Prokofiev and Brahms. He’s worked with all the biggest names of the 20th century including conductors Georg Solti, Zubin Mehta and Bernard Haitink.

    Read more: Why are piano keys black and white? And when did they change?

    Vladimir Ashkenazy: Frédéric Chopin - 24 Préludes Opus 28

  5. Daniel Barenboim (1942-)

    Daniel Barenboim’s unparalleled career as a pianist, conductor, and advocate for world peace has earned him a place on some of the world’s greatest stages, from the Berlin State Opera to the United Nations. The Israeli-Argentinian conductor was also one of four esteemed figures to escort the Olympic flag into the London stadium in 2012.

    Having made his performing debut at seven years old, Barenboim has honed his skill to become one of the world’s finest pianists, with a vast repertoire all played with needle-like precision and emotive musical intuition.

    Read more: When Daniel Barenboim, Yo-Yo Ma and Anne-Sophie Mutter gifted us achingly beautiful Beethoven

    Daniel Barenboim plays Beethoven Sonata No. 8 Op. 13 (Pathetique)

  6. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

    From one of the great Beethoven interpreters, to the piano titan himself. Beethoven’s piano works are some of the most widely admired, from his ‘Moonlight’ Sonata to ‘Für Elise’. He was a radical musician in his time, as his contemporary Carl Ludwig Junker remarked: “Beethoven’s playing differs so greatly from the usual method of treating the piano, that it seems as if he had struck out an entirely new path for himself.”

    We may not have any recordings of Beethoven performing, but we do have the virtuosic and inventive music he wrote for the piano and accounts from those who were fortunate to have heard him play. Although better known now as a composer, he was renowned in his day for prolifically virtuosic piano battles in Vienna – which he won without exception.

    Read more: Ultra-realistic image of Beethoven created by visual artist using composer’s own life mask

    Krystian Zimerman – Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat Major, Op. 73: II. Adagio un poco moto

  7. Alfred Brendel (1931-)

    “If I belong to a tradition it is a tradition that makes the masterpiece tell the performer what he should do and not the performer telling the piece what it should be like.” Those are the words of the brilliant Mr Brendel himself.

    He can turn his hand to music from any period but is particularly respected for his interpretations of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Liszt.

    Alfred Brendel - Schubert - Four Impromptus, D 899

  8. Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

    Poland’s most famous composer was also one of the great piano virtuosos of his day. The vast majority of his work was for solo piano and though there are no recordings of him playing, one contemporary said: “One may say that Chopin is the creator of a school of piano and a school of composition. In truth, nothing equals the lightness, the sweetness with which the composer preludes on the piano; moreover nothing may be compared to his works full of originality, distinction and grace.”

    Read more: Blind pianist’s stunning Chopin nocturne leaves Lang Lang speechless

    And if those words don’t convince you of Chopin’s incredible piano skill, perhaps this devilish étude he wrote, aged just 26, will:

    Winter-Wind - Evgeny Kissin

  9. Glenn Gould (1932-1982)

    If there were ever a pianist who divided classical music fans, Glenn Gould is the one. The Canadian pianist is best known for his performances of the music of J.S. Bach, and particularly The Goldberg Variations. But he’s also famous for humming along while he played, performing on a tiny chair with sawn-off legs, which he took to all his concerts, and his exacting demands for recording and performing conditions.

    Read more: This piano plays Bach just like legendary pianist Glenn Gould, thanks to artificial intelligence

    Glenn Gould - The Goldberg Variations (Johann Sebastian Bach)

  10. Myra Hess (1890-1965)

    Dame Myra Hess is famous not so much for winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music at the age of 12, nor for performing with the legendary conductor Sir Thomas Beecham when she was 17 – but for the series of concerts she gave at the National Gallery during WWII.

    During the war, London’s music venues were closed to avoid mass casualties if any were hit by bombs. Hess had the idea of using the Gallery to host lunchtime concerts. The series ran for six and a half years and Hess herself performed in 150 of them.

    Read more: During World War II Steinway pianos were parachuted onto battlefields to provide relaxation

    The Great Myra Hess

  11. Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989)

    There’s a strong case to be made for Vladimir Horowitz to be crowned the greatest pianist of all time. He made his debut in 1920 in a solo recital in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

    In 1925 his fame had grown substantially and he crossed into the West, saying he wished to study with Artur Schnabel in Berlin – but he’d decided to leave for good and had stuffed American and British currency into his shoes.

    He gave his debut in the US in 1928 at Carnegie Hall and he went on to become an American citizen. He is best known for his performances of Romantic works including music by Chopin, Rachmaninov and Schumann.

    Vladimir Horowitz - Träumerei - Schumann (Kinderszenen)

  12. Stephen Hough (1961-)

    British pianist Sir Stephen Hough is a consummate soloist and chamber musician, as comfortable playing the showcase-Romantic concertos as a piano quintet, a miniature by Massenet or Ravel, or a hidden Mompou gem.

    “Hough is one of those keyboard polymaths who’s at home in whatever music he chooses to play,” wrote one critic. Not content with piano mastery alone, Hough is also a choral composer, writer, novelist and painter. A true Renaissance man.

    Sir Stephen Hough plays Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini | Yamaha Music

  13. Lang Lang (1982-)

    Lang Lang changed the classical music world forever with his inimitable panache both on and off stage. Thousands of children in China took up the piano in what has become know as ‘the Lang Lang effect’.

    His infectious enthusiasm for the piano has now made its way to the UK, as a judge on Channel 4’s The Piano alongside popstar Mika.

    Read more: Lang Lang surprises 10-year-old superfan on The Piano after sparkling Haydn solo

    Lang Lang and Gina Alice play a breathless Brahms duet!

  14. Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

    Vying with Chopin for the crown of greatest 19th-century virtuoso was Franz Liszt, the Hungarian composer, teacher and pianist. Among his best known works are his fiendishly difficult Années de pèlerinage, the Piano Sonata in B minor and his Mephisto Waltz.

    And as a performer his fame was legendary. Long before The Beatles, this Romantic era pop star caused hordes of fainting fans, a black market for Liszt merch, and full-on fist fights between his admirers. There was even a word coined for the frenzy he inspired: Lisztomania.

    Read more: The 15 greatest pieces by Franz Liszt

    Jeneba Kanneh-Mason plays blistering Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 at Classic FM’s Rising Stars

  15. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

    One of the greatest injustices in all of music history is that recording technology didn’t exist in the time of Mozart.

    We can never know for sure just how good a piano player he was, but judging by the music Mozart wrote for the instrument – he could give anyone in this list a run for their money. Just listen to his Piano Concerto No.20 for an idea of what the most famous composer of them all might have sounded like…

    Mozart’s storming Piano Concerto No.20 – Ariel Lanyi and the 12 Ensemble | Classic FM's Rising Stars

  16. Víkingur Ólafsson (1984-)

    One of the most exciting pianists of the future, by just over 30 years old Icelandic-born Víkingur Ólafsson was already being hailed the next Glenn Gould.

    Now 40, Ólafsson has made his indelible mark on the contemporary piano scene, noted for his delicate, attentive touch on the keyboard and sensitive musicianship. With one of the greatest recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations released since Glenn Gould, we can only imagine what Ólafsson could go on to achieve...

    Víkingur Ólafsson – Bach: Organ Sonata No. 4, BWV 528: II. Andante [Adagio] (Transcr. Stradal)

  17. Murray Perahia (1947-)

    Perahia may have started playing the piano when he was just four but it wasn’t until the age of 15, he says, that he became seriously interested in music. In 1972 he became the first North American to win the Leeds Piano Competition and the following year he worked with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at the Aldeburgh Festival.

    In 1992 a bone abnormality caused his hand to swell and forced him to take some time off from performing. It was during this time that he found solace in the music of J.S. Bach. His Bach recordings are regarded as some of the best ever made.

    Bach: French Suite No 4 - Murray Perahia

  18. Maria João Pires (1944-)

    A Portuguese pianist admired for her interpretations of Chopin, Schubert and Mozart, among many others. A critic in The Times once said: “she makes you listen to Schubert’s genius with fresh ears.”

    She also, has a remarkable memory – remember the time she’d prepared the wrong concerto for a concert and just played the right one anyway?

    Read more: ‘It was very scary’ – what went through Maria João Pires’ mind in THAT viral wrong concerto

    Maria Joao Pires was expecting another Mozart concerto

  19. Maurizio Pollini (1942-2024)

    When Pollini won the International Chopin Piano Competition in 1960, Arthur Rubinstein is said to have remarked: “That boy can play the piano better than any of us.”

    Since then, Pollini steadily built his reputation as one of the greatest pianists of his day, having performed with the likes of conductor Claudio Abbado and the Vienna Philharmonic. In 2010-11 London’s Southbank Centre programmed ‘the Pollini Project’, a series of five concerts of music ranging from Bach to Stockhausen.

    Maurizio Pollini plays Chopin Nocturne no. 8 op. 27 no. 2

  20. Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)

    The great Russian pianist Sergei Rachmaninov could comfortably stretch a 13th on the piano (five more notes than an octave). Just a cursory glance at his Etudes and Concertos makes a convincing case for that fact being true.

    Arthur Rubinstein said of Rachmaninov: “He had the golden, living tone which comes from the heart,” and happily recordings of this magnificent pianist exist to prove him right.

    Here’s a future contender for this list, 18-year-old South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim, giving Rachmaninov’s mighty Piano Concerto No.3 what for.

    Read more: Why ‘All By Myself’ sounds uncannily like Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2

    Yunchan Lim 임윤찬 – RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30 – 2022 Cliburn Competition

  21. Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997)

    One of the many greats battling for the title of best 20th-century pianist, Richter is part of a handful of mighty Russian pianists who emerged in the mid-20th century. He wasn’t a big fan of the recording process, however, so his best albums are recordings of his live performances including those in Amsterdam in 1986, in New York in 1960 and in Leipzig in 1963.

    Sviatoslav Richter - Chopin Etude Op. 10 No. 4

  22. Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)

    This Polish American pianist is often quoted as the best Chopin performer of all time. He was found to have perfect pitch at the age of two and made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic when he was just 13. He was taught by a pianist called Karl Heinrich Barth, who had been a pupil of Liszt, making Rubinstein the descendant of a formidable pianistic tradition.

    Arthur Rubinstein - Chopin - Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21

  23. Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

    One of the few female pianists to compete in the largely male world of 19th-century music, Clara was a superstar of her day. Her talents far outshone those of her composer husband Robert. Lucrative concert fees made her the chief breadwinner of the household, all whilst raising seven young children.

    One critic of the time said: “The appearance of this artist can be regarded as epoch-making… In her creative hands, the most ordinary passage, the most routine motive acquires a significant meaning, a colour, which only those with the most consummate artistry can give.”

    Read more: 9 of Clara Schumann’s all-time best pieces of music

    Isata Kanneh-Mason | Clara Schumann's Scherzo No.2 in C Minor | Classic FM Session

  24. Mitsuko Uchida (1948-)

    The Japanese-British pianist Mitsuko Uchida holds vital importance to the music world. She studied in Vienna and gave her first recital in the town when she was just 14. Best known for her performances of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin she’s also made world-class recordings of works by Schubert and Schumann.

    Mozart: Concerto for piano and Orchestra (d-minor) K.466, Uchida

  25. Yuja Wang

    Yuja Wang is one of the most exciting and dynamic pianists of the 21st century. Blending celebrity glamour and music-making of the very highest calibre with rhapsodic performances and high-end brand partnerships, she is a true global superstar, regularly selling out almost every concert hall she walks into.

    Read more: Yuja Wang wore a heart rate monitor in Rachmaninov marathon, with astonishing results

    Yuja Wang - Carmen Variations (Bizet Horowitz) / Yuja Wang Carnegie Hall 2017 ENCORE