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The 50 Best Piano Players Of All Time

March 17, 2020
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The 50 Best Piano Players Of All Time

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For the benefit of all the piano fanatics, we are going to compile the list of some of the best individuals ever to play the instrument. It is important to note that the names are not in any superiority order. These people have all played their part one way or another in making the piano one of the most magnificent musical instrument. In that regard, it would be wrong to rate one over the other.

1. Leif Ove Andsnes (1970- Present)

Only 48 yrs, Leif Ove Andsnes, is best known for his involvement with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in all their five recordings. In 2013 he was indicted in the Gramophone Hall of Fame thus confirming his stature as one of the best piano players of all times.

2. Claudio Arrau (1903-1991)

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What makes Claudio Arrau stand out is his attention to details. During his lifetime he interpreted classical music ranging from the baroque to the 20th-century era. Because of his exceptional capability with the keyboard, he managed to find fame both in Germany and the United States.

3. Kenny Kirkland (1954-1998)

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Kirkland made his name as an associate of the great trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. It was their stink together that helped shape his career. Listening to Marsalis hit albums such as ‘Black Codes (From the Underground)’ you realise why many critics regard Kirkland as a great pianist.

4. Duke Pearson (1932-1980)

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Pearson was forced by circumstances to become a full-time pianist. Dental problems meant he was unable to play the brass instrument hence he decided to concentrate on the keyboard. He played a key role in the establishment of the Blue Label in the production of Hard Bob style.

5. Teresa Carreno (1853-1917)

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Teresa Carreno is one the best pianist of the 19th and 20th century. She started composing at a tender age of six years and went on to perform at the age of eight years. Her performances were always energetic which brought about her nickname ‘Valkyrie of the Piano’.

6. Josef Hofmann (1876-1957)

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Hofmann may not be a household name in the musical world; however, those who have listened to his performance will agree he was an exceptional pianist. What strikes in his performances is the clarity and pureness that most keyboard players don’t have.

7. Martha Argerich (1941- Present)

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When you talk of the legendary performers of the keyboard, Martha Argerich is certainly one of them. She is not only technically gifted, but her unique style always leaves fans begging for more. She has several Grammy nominees and awards as recognition of her talent and dedication to the piano.

8. Vladimir Ashkenazy (1937- Present)

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Ashkenazy is a well-renowned solo pianist who started playing the keyboard at the age of six. On top of being a performer, he has released multiple recording earning him five Grammy awards. On top of that Vladimir Ashkenazy is a recipient of Iceland’s Order of the Falcon for his exceptional work.

9. Harold Mabern (1936- Present)

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Harold Mabern is one of the most skilled pianists in the jazz genre. Unfortunately having spent most of his career performing as a sideman not many people recognize his talent. In his long career, he has played with jazz legends such as Sonny Rollins and Lee Morgan. You need to listen to his work to understand why these legends insisted on working with him.

10. Jackie Byard (1922-1999)

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In a period of transition, Jackie Byard made his name by using his skill as a pianist to improvise early jazz and modern styles to significant success. He went on to enjoy a productive career as a piano teacher in established schools such as Harvard, New England Conservatory among others.

11. Artur Schnabel (1882-1951)

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Artur Schnabel is one of the few pianists not contented with the tactical genius of playing the keyboard. He displayed high intellectual awareness in all his work thus gaining a lot of respect among his peers. Artur Schnabel is also known for his famous Beethoven piano sonatas recorded between 1932 and 1935.

12. Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991)

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Wilhelm Kempff was without a doubt one the leading pianist in the 20th century. Many remember him for his recordings of Johannes Brahms, Robert Schumann, Robert Schumann and L.v. Beethoven. He enjoyed a career spanning sixty years which makes him one of the longest piano players of all times.

13. Glenn Gould (1932-1982)

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Glenn Gould made his name as an interpreter of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. He went on to rule big concerts both in Europe and American. He, however, quits public performance at the age of 31 to concentrate on writing and composing.

14. Alfred Brendel (1931- Present)

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Alfred Brendel is another master interpreter of the 20th and 21st century. What makes him so unique however is the fact that he was not born into a musical family nor was he a child prodigy. Brendel credits ability on the piano as being self-taught as well as listening to other pianists and singers. He is a living proof that success is possible through the dedication and hard work.

15. Art Tatum (1909-1956)

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Art Tatum is proof that disability is not inability. Despite being born nearly blind, he went on to achieve significant success as a pianist who was unrivalled by none. Most will remember Tatum for his quick reflexes which made some of his recordings appear done by three pianists simultaneously. Despite not living long he left a mark in the jazz industry that is felt up to date.

16. Bill Evans (1929-1980)

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Bill Evans work is still highly influential to modern jazz musicians. His style of play as a pianist is very popular with young upcoming keyboard players who are keen to follow it to the letter. Some of his most notable works include his role in Davis’s album ‘Kind of Blue’ that went on to enjoy huge success. Evans was also known to work in a trio setting with the likes of bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian.

17. Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)

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Thelonious Monk improvisational style made him a darling to many. He is better known as a pianist as much as a composer. Monk is second only to Duke Ellington as the most recorded composer despite writing only 70 pieces. In that regard, you will probably come along some of his songs if you decide to listen to some of the jazz songs out there.

18. Oscar Peterson (1925-2007)

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Oscar Peterson is one of the most successful pianists ever to grace the music industry. In his long career, he released over 200 recording winning eight Grammy awards in the process. The legendary Duke Ellington used to refer to him as the ‘Maharaja of Keyboard’ owing to his mastery on the instrument. His performances are must have to any lover of jazz music.

19. Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)

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Cortot was one of the most influential piano teachers in the 20th century. Some of the best pianists were taught and mentored by him. As a keyboard player, he worked on many notable Romantic pianos works belonging to prominent composers such as Saint-Saëns, Chopin and Schumann.

20. Emil Gilels (1916-1985)

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Emil Gilels pitch as a pianist is the best you will ever hear. The renowned pianist Sergei Rachmaninov once called to declare him as his heir after listening to one of his performances on radio. One of his most notable performances worth listening to is that of the Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor that showcases his ability as a top pianist.

21. Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)

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Arthur Rubinstein is one of the few pianists who managed to perform even at old age. By the time of his death, he had already performed for over eighty years. Rubinstein achieved a lot of success as a performer most notable was his interpretation of Chopin work.

22. Daniel Barenboim (1942- Present)

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Daniel Barenboim is a talented pianist who is now head of the Berlin State Opera. His rise to fame has seen him accorded citizenship in four countries namely; Argentina, Israel, Spain and Palestine. Barenboim has also received multiple international awards which include Seven Grammy awards and an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He continues to be an inspiration to many upcoming pianists and conductors.

23. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

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Ludwig van Beethoven is another figure who refused to let disability shape his life. His highlight contribution in the music world is during the transition period of classical and romantics eras. Although he started losing his hearing in his late 20’s he continued to perform even though in distress. Ludwig van Beethoven story is one that shows the amount of hard work some of these great performers had put in to produce the work we enjoy now.

24. Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951)

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Nikolai Medtner story is one that is both inspiring and heartbreaking. Before World War 1 Medtner was a renowned composer and pianist in his home country Russia. He managed to gain rare reviews for his ability on the keyboard and also talent as a composer. Because of the war he later settled in the West where sadly he lived a quiet life suffering in poverty. On a positive note, his work has now gained recognition worldwide and his name guaranteed among the best pianist to ever live.

25. Dame Myra Hess (1890-1965)

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Dame Myra Hess is one of the few ladies who made their name in a male-dominated era. She is best known for her interpretations of Schumann works. Initially, she struggled to get her career going but blossomed late on. She did enough to leave a lasting mark on the industry.

26. Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991)

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Rudolf Serkin was a child prodigy who learned to read music before he learnt to read and write. He went on to enjoy a stellar career winning multiple awards not limited to the Grammy and the National Medal of Arts. Serkin migrated to the US where he became a piano teacher in Curtis Institute of Music thus helping to establish many promising careers.

27. Maria Grinberg (1908-1978)

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Maria Grinberg was a talented Russian pianist whose career suffered during the communist era. She would go on to resurrect her career at the age of 50 when she was allowed to perform abroad. It was during this time that her talent as a pianist was fully appreciated. Although the communist government controlled her rise in Russia, she became a household name in neighbouring countries doing multiple performances to the delight of her fans.

28. Herbie Hancock (1940- Present)

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Herbie Hancock is one the most influential pianist alive. In the modern jazz, there are not many pianists who can match his ability on the piano. An architect of the post-bob sound Hancock has produced a lot of music in different genres ranging from jazz, RnB, Electro among others. He has a large collection of Grammy awards to his name as well other recognition. The good news is Hancock shows no signs of slowing down as he is currently working on a new album.

29. McCoy Tyner (1938- Present)

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McCoy Tyner path a pianist got shaped by the encounter with famous jazz musicians and players. Top among them was the legendary pianist Bud Powell who happened to be his neighbour. Thelonious Monk was another major influence whose style is still visible in most of Tyner works. Tyner also spent a good number of years performing with the John Coltrane band where he gained valuable experience. To date, Tyner is one of the most sought-after pianists in the US and abroad.

30. Chick Corea (1941- Present)

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Chick Corea was an influential figure in the birth of jazz fusion genre. Some of his works namely: ‘Spain’, ‘500 Miles High’ and ‘Windows’ are now officially jazz standard. Still going strong, Corea is one performer whose music has gained recognition outside the boundaries of the jazz genre. The popularity of his songs means he is a fan favourite wherever he goes.

31. Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

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Here is the one the greatest if not the best pianist of all times. Many people will agree that Frédéric Chopin is one of the standout figures in the history of the piano. His performances and teachings have influenced multiple pianists through the years.

32. Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989)

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Vladimir Horowitz was a classical pianist who is well known for his virtuoso technique. His performance often created excitement among fans thus making him a popular figure. Because of his many interpretations and recordings, many people rate him as one of the best pianists of the 20th century. His work has a significant influence on most pianists around the world.

33. Lang Lang (1982- Present)

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Lang Lang is one the fastest rising pianist of the modern era. Still only 36 he has performed with major Orchestras in Europe, China and United States. Having suffered tendinitis in his left arm in late 2016 most people thought it was the end of his career. He has defied the odds however and come back stronger this year to the delight of his fans. Lang Lang is certainly the pianist to watch in this century as he is full of promise.

34. Stephen Hough (1961- Present)

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Stephen Hough has appeared a soloist in major Orchestra around the world. Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra are just a few of the many Orchestra where he has performed. On top of that, Hough is also a piano teacher at established schools such as the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music.

35. Ahmad Jamal (1930- Present)

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For five decades now, Ahmad Jamal has established himself as one of the leading figures in jazz music. During that time multiple jazz musicians have benefited from his undisputable skill on the keyboard. Surprisingly he recently released a new album thus confirming he is still king of the piano even at 88 years.

36. Fats Waller (1904-1943)

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Fats Waller learnt his trade as a pianist in church because his mother was a preacher. He was one of the first players to come up with the stride style which has greatly influenced the modern jazz piano performances. Waller was a hilarious character hence his performances were always full of laughter. His talent on the piano was also exceptional producing major works such the ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ which is now a jazz standard.

37. Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

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Duke Ellington was a renowned composer as well as a pianist who managed to lead an Orchestra for a period not less than 50 years. He preferred his music to be known as American music rather than jazz music as he didn’t want to remain under the barriers of the jazz genre. He managed over 20,000 performances around the world which explains why his name is among the legend pianists.

38. Count Basie (1904-1984)

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Count Basie was one of the leading figures of Bennie Moten’s band. He also had his own Orchestra ‘Count Basie Orchestra’ which he used to record major hits such as ‘One O’Clock Jump’ that dominated the era of swings. His input in the jazz genre was recognised when he became the first African American to win a Grammy award in 1958. Basie went on to win many more awards for his incredible recordings which still rule the airwave to date.

39. Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997)

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Sviatoslav Richter was one individual who had a passion for playing the piano so much that he would perform without charging. Richter had mastered the virtuoso technique to an extent he became a point of reference among his peers. Unfortunately, Richter didn’t get to perform outside Russia because of the government restriction. His work, however, is now being celebrated all over the world benefiting many piano fans.

40. Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953)

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Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev did not get the recognition he deserved until after his death. At his prime, he fell out with the Soviet Union government who banned most his work. His talent did not go to drain however as his work gained prominence later on appearing in major operas and films worldwide.

41. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756- 1791)

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart name comes from the history books. Born in the 18th century, many people remember him as a great composer. However, it is worth noting that Mozart was an excellent keyboard and violin player. His ability to play the instruments is what brought him into the limelight at an early age. While his death at 35 remains a mystery, his ability on the piano is not. He left a lasting legacy that future generations have tried but failed to emulate.

42. Keith Jarrett (1945- Present)

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Keith Jarrett is master of American jazz and classical music. He has received a lot of positive reviews for his ability to borrow from other genres such as the gospel blues and ethnic folk songs. His ability on the piano is beyond doubt; this was confirmed in 1975 when his album ‘The Köln Concert’ became the record best seller of all times. In 2008 he was inducted in the Down Beat hall of fame confirming his stature as a legend pianist.

43. Billy Joel (1949- Present)

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If you want to name one pianist who has acquired so much fame as well as wealth, then Billy Joel is your man. In 2010 the Forbes magazine calculated his wealth at a staggering $160 million. The Piano man as he is commonly known is still going strong currently with over 150 million records sold. Words are not enough to describe this man; you need to listen to some of his hits to understand why the piano is Billy Joel and Billy Joel is the piano. ‘Tell Her About It’, ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me’ and ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ are some of the hits you should take a look at.

44. Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981)

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Mary Lou Williams is one of the main reasons why today there is a healthy number of female pianists at the top. During her time she managed to show that women could also excel in playing the piano and at the same time co-exist with their male peers. She worked with great pianists such Duke Ellington and taught the likes of Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron, Charlie Parker to name but a few.

45. Cedar Walton (1934-2013)

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Cedar Walton is an icon and a true representation of the hard bop genre. He was one the main reason why the Art Blakey band became so successful. At the height of his career, most jazz musicians sought his services when doing a recording. The likes of John Coltrane and Hank Mobley are some of the big names who insisted on working with him.

46. Kenny Barron (1943- Present)

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In 2010, Kenny Barron was honored as a jazz master by the The National Endowment for the Arts.  He was also named ‘one of the top jazz pianists in the world’ by the Los Angeles Times. Such is the significance of Barron ability that he gets the recognition that most pianists can only dream of.

47. Dave Grusin (1934- Present)

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Dave Grusin has made a name for himself in recording tracks for major films and TV programs. Because of his role in the film industry he has received Eight Oscar Nominations in recognition to his work on films like ‘Tootsie’, ‘Heaven Can Wait’, ‘Three Days of the Condor’ among others. We cannot also fail to mention his 10 Grammy awards makes him a success in both the music and film industries.

48. Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

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Franz Liszt is one of the most celebrated pianists despite living in the 19th century. His work was widely recognized in Europe hence making him a popular figure then. Apart from being a player, Liszt was also a great piano teacher who went on to become a key figure in New German School.

49. Murray Perahia (1947- Present)

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Murray Perahia first burst into the limelight by winning the famed Leeds Piano Competition in 1972. Since then he has never looked back producing many notable recordings such as Schubert: Late Piano Sonatas Brahms: Händel Variations, Mozart: Concertos for 2 & 3 Pianos; Andante and Variations for Piano Four Hands. Despite his misfortunes with hand injuries, Perahia has defied the odds by making one come back after another. Murray Perahia is without a doubt one of the standout pianists of the 21st century.

50. Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

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Clara managed to come out of the shadow of her husband Robert Schumann who was a distinguished composer and music critic. Born in an era where women were not guaranteed a place in the music industry she not only competed with the male peers but also became a shining star for other women to follow. Also known as the European Queen of the Piano Clara proved it is possible to engage in career and marriage and still find success in both.

Final Thoughts

The list of the best pianists could go on and on because there are so many individuals who have made their mark in the industry. Fortunately better technology in the 21st century means we are now getting record-breaking hits and albums. While you continue to enjoy the music also take time to appreciate the hard work of those individuals who devote their time and energy to entertain us

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Agnes holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and is an avid feline lover and adoring owner of two cats, Agnes’s love for music has led her to a successful career as a freelance writer specializing in the music space.
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