Musicophile’s Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists

Top 10 and Best-Ofs

I don’t do top 10 lists often. I probably should to them more often, as if you’re a blogger you know that they tend to generate higher than average traffic, somehow either Google or more likely the average reader tends to like this kind of lists (and I must admit, I tend to click on other peoples “best of lists” as well), but I usually prefer to write about individual albums instead.

My Personal Top 10 Pianists

That said, the idea for this particular blog post came along while doing some comparative listening for a future blog post on Schubert’s piano sonatas. I noticed I always keep going back to a certain number of pianists, that I love and respect, and that usually always have something to say.

Obviously, this list is highly subjective. This is not supposed to be “Great pianists of the century” or Top 100 pianists of all times, you’ll find plenty of those on the internet already.

So obviously, there will be great names missing, Schnabel, Arrau, Rubinstein, Brendel, Trifonov, etc. etc. etc.

I’ll be listing them in alphabetical order, as there is absolutely no way I’ll try to rank them.

So, here we go:

  • Leif Ove Andsnes

Not very suprisingly, given that I’ve already listed him here for my all time favorite version of Grieg’s piano concerto, and have praised his recent Beethoven cycle with the Chamber orchestra of Europe.

I’ve seen him live playing Beethoven’s concerti 2-4 in a row, without a conductor. An amazing experience.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that Andsnes has also recorded an excellent version of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos with Antonio Pappano, which I have yet to review.

Rachmaninov Complete Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes London Symphony Orchestra Berliner Philharmoniker Antonio Pappano Warner Classics

I guess that covers such a large range of the romantic piano concertos that it is pretty clear why I’m choosing him. Note I could have mentioned many other beautiful recordings, including solo piano or chamber music.

 

  • Martha Argerich

Well I said I’m not going to rank the pianists, but Martha clearly makes it all the way to the top of the list.

With her, you can really start at the beginning, with her legendary debut album following her winning the 1965 Warsaw Chopin competition. 

Or go to a very recent recording around 50 years later of Argerich playing Mozart’s concertos, as mentioned in My Must Have Mozart Albums.

Or, for the sake of it, pretty much everything she has recorded in between. The only exception are some of the live recordings from her beloved Lugano festival, not all of them are necessarily must haves. But beyond that, you can be sure that her energy to enchant you!

Here is another example:

Martha Argerich Rachmaninov 3 Tchaikovsky 1 Riccardo Chailly Kirill Kondrashin

There are several “complete”, “best of”  and “collection” boxes out there. All are highly recommended.

 

  • Rafal Blechacz

Together with Benjamin Grosvenor and Igor Levit, among the youngest on this lists.

I had to list him already for his outstanding Chopin Préludes, as reviewed previously.

Another recording I can recommend is his Debussy and Szymanowksi album from 2012.

Debussy Szymanowksi Rafal Blechacz Deusche Grammophone 2012

I’ve seen him live play Chopin and Szymanowski, and I was really impressed by this timid young man and the intimacy of his playing. Somebody to watch.

 

  • Ronald Brautigam

Playing on an “authentic” piano that sounds like the composer would have heard the piece is a relatively recent trend, as techniques in the reconstruction of the fortepiano, and alongside the specific playing skills for these instruments have evolved.

I’ve already mentioned his beautiful version of Mendelssohn’s Lieder Ohne Worte (review of part I here, part II here).

However, what I recommend most often is his outstanding complete Beethoven sonata cycle. Obviously this doesn’t replace the efforts on modern piano from Schnabel to today, but you really owe it to yourself to discover how Beethoven can sound on a piano of that time, exceptionally well played by this amazing artist.

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  • Emil Gilels

Why Gilels as a representative of the great pianists of the 1950s-70s, and not Rubinstein, or Richter, or Horowitz?

Well, honestly, all of them would have deserved to be listed here. I’m just having a very special attraction to his Brahms concertos, be it with Jochum (reviewed here) or with Fritz Reiner and the CSO.

Another album that is his outstanding recording of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, an all time classic.

 

Edvard Grieg Lyric Pieces Emil Gilels Deutsche Grammophon 24 96

 

  • Benjamin Grosvenor

I’ve just recently praised his latest album, Homages (review here), and given 5 stars to his Chopin Liszt Ravel album here. He was also nominated for the Gramophone awards for his album Dances in 2015, which he should have won (IMHO).

Benjamin Grosvenor Dances Decca Classics

He is probably the youngest of my list (note to self, do some fact checking), and among his few recordings, all are just amazing. This is one of the most outstanding talents I’m aware of.

 

  • Igor Levit

Regular readers of my blog know that I’ve praised this great young artist several times already.

Most lately for his Gramophone Album of the Year: Bach / Beethoven /Rzewski, see here for my review, and here as well, as well as in my article about the top 5 classical albums of 2015.

Back in 2015, his Bach Partitas album was also nominated by Gramophone for an Award in the Instrumental category.

But there is one album I haven’t mentioned yet on my blog, which I also like very much, his debut on Sony.

And no, he didn’t start easy, he tackled immediately Beethoven’s late piano sonatas.

Igor Levit Beethoven The Late Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 24 96 2015

And how! This is not only technically impressive (the Hammerklavier always is) but such a high level of musicality. Again, watch this artist!

 

  • Ivan Moravec

Very simply, for the most beautiful Chopin Nocturne recording there is, see my review here. But basically, his other Chopin is also excellent. I actually don’t have any recording from other composers by him. I’ll investigate!

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

 

  • Murray Perahia

No idea why I haven’t written more about Perahia. I’ve mentioned him as one of my favorite Goldberg players, and his Bach in general is excellent (will need to write about his new French suites at some point).

But fundamentally, this is one of the pianists that really adds new insights to whatever he touches. Never flashy, never show-off, but always nuanced.

As an example, let me take his Schumann, which is among the best recordings I know of these little gems:

Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Fantasiestücke Murray Perahia CBS Sony

 

  • Krystian Zimerman

Again, an artist I haven’t mentioned enough. A living legend to me, winner of the 1975 Chopin competition in Warsaw (he’s the third from this illustrous list, together with Argerich and Blechacz).

Which album to mention? Usually he records relatively few albums, so you can pretty much trust them to be top notch in general.

My preferred is probably his Chopin Ballades:

Chopin: 4 Ballades, Barcarolle, Fantasie Krystian Zimerman Deutsche Gramophon

I’ve heard him play live couple of years ago, including the Barcarolle. He maybe the most intellectual pianist I’m aware of, and you can hear the cerebral approach he takes. That said, this isn’t to say that his music isn’t full of emotion.

I could also have mentioned his Chopin piano concerto recordings, be it with the LA Phil or the Polish Festival orchestra, both are among the best there is for these works.

 

What do You think?

So, here we go. What do you think? Do you agree, disagree? Did I miss anybody (I’m sure I did, with this artificial cut off of 10). Please let me know?

You can find the albums mentioned here in the respective links to previous posts, or below:

 

Oops, He Did It Again: Benjamin Grosvenor with Another Great Album!

Benjamin Grosvenor

I’ve mentioned Benjamin Grosvenor several times already, including here, and here in my comments about last year’s Gramophone Awards. If you read through these reviews and comments, you’ll quickly see I’m a huge fan. This young artist (he’s only 24!) is really spectacular.

So far, I have yet to hear a disappointing album from him.

So my hopes were high when he released his new album, Homages.

Homages (Decca 2016)

Benjamin Grosvenor Homages (24/96) Decca 2016

Grosvenor likes albums mixing several composers around a theme. His last album was called Dances, now we’re talking about Homages.

And we start strongly, with Busoni’s piano setting of the famous Chaconne from Bach’s suites for solo violin. This is rather rarely played, which is a pity, as for once a transcription actually adds something (more often than not, they do not work that well for me). You really get the full bandwidth of this beautiful piece, and the outstanding beauty of Milstein’s legendary interpretation comes to mind, while Busoni’s fireworks around the well known melody really works. This sounds almost like Brahms (who by the way also transcribed the Chaconne, but into a version for left hand only), or actually even occasionally like Rachmaninov. A true showpiece, but without any negative connotation that is usually associated with this term.

From this grandiose opening, we move to another rather unfamiliar music, Mendelssohn’s preludes & fuges op. 35. Mendelssohn was essential for the “rediscovery” of Bach in his time, and you can hear the spirit of Bach in these little-known, but beautiful gems.

From these Bach homages, we move on to more traditional romantic piano music with Chopin and Liszt, an area where Grosvenor feels very much at home.

The booklet tries to give some story around why Chopin’s beloved Barcarolle and parts of Liszt’ Années de Pélérinage are homages as well. I must admit I don’t care that much, I just love his playing.

The Barcarolle op. 60 is one of my all time favorites from Chopin. I heard it some years ago by Krystian Zimerman live, in what remains my personal reference. However, this interpretaion really stands on its own, and I like it a lot.Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli is also really well played.

He closes off with Ravel, as already in his Decca debut, focusing Le Tombeau de Couperin, where the homage aspect is already evident from the title.

I wonder if Grosvenor ever will record e.g. an entire cycle or work, or if he’ll stick to this kind of “concept” album. I wouldn’t be surprised if he sticks to the latter, which is great, because it gets me to discover music I wouldn’t necessarily have discovered without him.

Keep going!

My rating: 4 stars (to clarify: this is absolutely 5 stars playing, but not always essential repertoire)

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

Argerich vs. Angelich – Liszt’s B-Minor Sonata

Gramophone

The new July issue of Gramophone appeared rather early on my iPad (I’m not into paper subscriptions any more).

As usual, impatient that I am, I jump immediately to the Editor’s Choices, starting with the Recording of the Month. This time, Nicolas Angelich recent Dedication Liszt/Schumann/Chopin album. Cool, I think to myself, another great recording to check out of Liszt’s b-minor sonata.

Liszt’s b-minor sonata

I’m not a huge fan of Liszt in general (too much, especially his orchestral works). But there are certain works I really like, including most of all his great b-minor sonata.

My favorite version by the way is Michael Pletnev’s recording on DG by the way (maybe to be reviewed at some point in the future).

In any case, I must admit, I didn’t really even get to listen to the entire Angelich album, I stopped about 5 minutes into the b-minor sonata. I was really stunned. Liszt was supposed to be the greatest virtuoso of his time, and this version, well, let’s just say, it didn’t touch me at all.

To be fair, my taste may not be universal, as I really liked Katia Buniatishvili’s recording on Sony, which was anything if not controversial, to say the least (some just hated it, stating is was too much…).

But again, this post won’t be about Angelich (which I have yet to properly listen to beyond my 5 minute trial) nor about Pletnev or Buniatishvili, but about one of the greatest pianists  of all times:

Martha Argerich

Yes, the fiery Argentine pianist. She has a very particular sound and style (in a blind test on Swiss radio, two experts blindly identified her vs another artist on 5 out of 5 different pieces, and even I got 3 out of 5), and once you’ve heard her, you’ll never forget her.

So I recently found myself buying her legendary debut album, remastered and released as a 24/96 download (I had bought in on CD ages ago, but hadn’t listened to it regularly enough).

Martha Argerich: Debut Recital (DG)

Martha Argerich Debut Recital Deutsche Gramophon 24 96

Wow.

Somehow, the Chopin competition really means something. Look at the winners, Pollini, Blechacz (see here), Yundi, and Argerich! (well, this year seems to be a bit of an outlier, see my comment here). Basically she was a pure genius from day one.

Her Chopin barcarolle, so beautiful. And the Scherzo no. 3, my favorite! Her Brahms is ok, not outstanding, but when we get to Liszt, all hell breaks loose! Already the Hungarian Rhapsody is full of fire and energy, her trademark, but go to b-minor, and check out every savory moment, from the quiet introvert moments to the amazing prestissimo (track 17).

If this leaves you bored, you’re probably deaf.

And now go back to your streaming provider of choice and check out the Angelich against it, and I guess you’ll understand what I mean.

My rating: 5 stars plus!

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

Note that getting the 24/96 remaster is not necessarily a must, unfortunately the original recording was already rather poor, and even the remaster still sounds rather like a shoe box.

 

UPDATE June 11: Another word about the Angelich recording that I browsed over a little bit superficially above.

The Angelich album not only got high praises from Gramophone as mentioned above, but also a Choc from Classica magazine, and this recording of the b-minor sonata was just selected in their June 2017 issue as best version in a blind test comparing 10 recordings out of the ones released in the last 20 years.

Nicholas Angelich Liszt Schumann Chopin Dedication Erato 2017

Triggered by this I listened again to Angelich. Well, to be fair, it is a good recording. However, I still prefer much more the more extreme versions like Argerich, Bunatishvili, etc. For me, this extreme work requires extreme playing. I find the Angelich a bit too “middle of the road”. But given that several reviewers I really respect disagree with me, you have to check it out.

The 2015 Chopin Competition – I Don’t Get It

Subjectivity

As you know if you’ve read this blog, before, I have absolutely no problem with subjectivity (see also how do I rate?) even if it may be controversial, and so I don’t hesitate putting my opinion out there, even if I may be a minority (e.g. with Staier’s Bach concertos that the whole world but me seems to love).

The 2015 Chopin Competition

However, things were slightly different with the 2015 Chopin competition. I mean we’re talking about one of the most important, if not the most important piano competition in the world, only held every 5 years! Former winners include legends like Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini, and in more recent years Yundi and Rafal Blechacz. Martha, Yundi, and Chopin specialist Nelson Goerner were part of the Jury this year!

So I felt rather belittled compared to those giants, and when the recording of the winner, South-Jorea’s Seong-Jin Cho came out on Deutsche Grammophon, and I didn’t really like the recording, I felt it must be me. Maybe these geniuses saw or heard something I don’t.

So I didn’t write about it yet on my blog and decided to give the album some more spins before I formally make up my mind. And then I must admit I forgot about it.

Seong-Jin Cho At the 2015 Warsaw Chopin Competition (Deutsche Grammophon 2015)

Song-Jin Cho Winner of the 17th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition Warsaw 2015

Just recently, the two classical journals I subscribe to, Gramophone and Classica, came out with their latest issue, and both reviewed it. And guess what, in both cases, the reviewers were significantly underwhelmed (3 out of 5 stars for Classica, and rather negative comments from Gramophone).

So at least it wasn’t just me. Don’t get me wrong, this is fine Chopin playing, but compare his preludes to Blechacz, and sorry but we’re talking night and day in my personal opinion. And then you get Sonata No. 2. Compare this to Argerich herself, or Pogorelich, or Rubinstein, again, this is absolutely no match.

Not sure what happened, maybe Deutsche Grammophon just released the wrong takes, maybe Cho will develop over time, but so far I really don’t get it.

But even if you take the pressure of a competition and live performance into account, just compare Cho to Blechacz’ final performance in Warsaw 11 years ago, and really, there is so much more presence:

 

Obviously, you can’t have a new Argerich every year, but still my expectations were higher.

So what do YOU think?

My rating: 3 stars

In any case, you can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

 

Hype vs. Hype – Lang Lang vs. Benjamin Grosvenor

First of all, to my subscribers, you may have been surprised not to see a post yesterday. This indeed has been the first time since I started this blog nearly 6 month ago that I didn’t post anything on my regular schedule of every 2-3 days. I unfortunately had a health issue in the family. I’ll really target to get fully back on schedule with posts appearing at least every 3 days.

Second, to the Jazz fans among my readers, hope you don’t get bored, my blog has been rather focused on classical music for the last posts. I’m working on getting back to Jazz ASAP.

But well, one more on classical music.

This one was triggered by my mother in law, suggesting I should write about Lang Lang’s latest album. When I spoke to her, I mentioned that I hadn’t heard it yet, but wasn’t a big fan of Lang Lang in general. Her answer was, “So why don’t you compare it to something you like better?”.

Well, here we go.

“Hyped* classical music artists

Every once in a while there are musicians out there, that, usually helped either by YouTube (e.g. Valeria Lisitsa) or by the label (remember Vanessa Mae?) that are rather well-known even to a non classical audience, and have a certain pop-star following. Sometimes (e.g. Jonas Kaufmann) the hype is correlated with quality, more often than not, I find the correlation between fame and quality in classical music to be not very strong.

Lang Lang is a typical example. He’s probably today’s best known pianists (don’t have any data to back this up unfortunately). And as I said to my mother-in-law above, I have yet to hear a Lang Lang album I really like.

But thanks to my streaming subscription I could simply check the latest album out and make up my own mind.

Lang Lang in Paris Chopin Tchaikovsky Sony 2015

The Chopin Scherzi

A word of introduction on the music: the album consists of the four Chopin Scherzi, and Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons for piano. I’m not very familiar with the latter, so I’m not going to comment on the performance.

However, I just love the Scherzi. There is an entire world in the 6-12 minutes of each one, and they are among my absolute favorite piano pieces by Chopin.

So my expectations were rather high. And I’m sorry to say I was disappointed.

No. 1 was just too nervous, to ADHD (my wife told me to switch albums when we listened to it together).

No. 2 is nicely flowing at the beginning, but getting a bit quirky over time, and again too nervous in the fast parts.

No. 3 is probably the best of the four, a bit too much still, but quite enjoyable nevertheless.

The worst was probably no. 4, just too much forte all over the place, and just too slow for my taste.

Benjamin Grosvenor

Now, as suggested by my wise mother-in-law, let me write about my recommended alternative.

And actually another form of “hype”, albeit at a smaller scale.

Benjamin Grosvenor at the tender age of 24 has won more awards already than others in a lifetime. He was Gramophone’s youngest-ever double award winner, and the rest of the British (and partially international) press went just as crazy about him.

So how’s the hype working out here?

Well actually, I’m a HUGE fan. His Chopin Liszt Ravel album, which features all 4 Scherzi, is just outstanding, and his more recent release Dances was not far behind in terms of quality (I mentioned it my comments about the 2015 Gramophone awards here).

There are obviously other outstanding versions of the Scherzi out there (Argerich for no. 3, Rubinstein, and the best I’ve heard was Kristin Zimerman for no. 2 in a live concert), but the recording here is pretty close to perfect.

Benjamin Grosvenor Chopin Liszt Ravel Decca 2011

My rating: 3 stars (Lang Lang) vs. 5 stars (Grosvenor)

You can find the Lang Lang here (Qobuz) if you really insist, and the Grosvenor here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical).

The official “making of” of the Lang Lang in Paris album here:

My Favorite Versions of Chopin’s Nocturnes

Another post on Chopin? Why not, given that the Chopin competition in Warsaw is going on right now, and I’ve mentioned in my previous post on the Préludes how important this competition is.

The Nocturnes

Furthermore, I’ve just had an interesting discussion on the Nocturnes on a forum, which triggered me to listen to several of my Nocturnes again.

The Nocturnes actually are not one single opus, they are individual or coupled words Chopin wrote over nearly 20 years. They share however a common character,  not surprisingly, nocturnal.

Chopin is the name everybody associates with this “genre” these days, but actually other composers (e.g. the Irishman John Fields) have used this title previously.

They are less focused on virtuosity and glamour, but are much more intimate. So you don’t need all the pianistic firepower to shine here, you need delicacy and insight.

Moravec

The are many good recordings out there. Rubinstein has recorded them at least 3 times (my preferred version dates from the 1930s), the Chopin legend Samson François has done a version, Claudio Arrau, Nelson Freire, and many others are worth considering.

However, my personal favorites are Ivan Moravec and Maria  Joao Pires.

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

Moravec’s Nocturnes are legendary, are rightfully so. I’ve never heard the Nocturnes played with more intensity and emotion. The recording is from the 1960s with only average sound quality but you’ll quickly for get that listening to this album. Just outstanding.

Chopin The Nocturnes Maria Joao Peres Deutsche Grammophon

I haven’t been very friendly to Pires in my recent review of her album with Gardiner, but there  is absolutely no fault to be found with this recording. Less intense then Moravec, but even more intimate. You feel like you’re sitting at home late at night in front of your fireplace, having a nice glass of wine in your hand, and she’s in the room playing just for you. This is the image that ever always comes up when I listen to her version.

I wouldn’t want to miss either one of these two outstanding recordings.
My rating for both albums: 5 stars

You can find the remastered Moravec here (Prestoclassical).

Rafal Blechacz’ Magnificent Chopin Préludes

The Chopin Piano Competition

It feels like these days there are so many competitions out there for young musicians. One one hand, that is a good thing, increasing their exposure, on the other hand it is hard for the outside to judge the quality of the different competitions.

Well, there is one competition that clearly has proven its relevance over time, the Chopin Piano competition in Warsaw. First of all it is only held every five years. Furthermore, it’s been around for nearly a century. Several times, the jury was critical enough not go give a first price.

And then, most importantly, are the winners. What is the common ground between Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman, and Yundi Li, beyond the fact that they are all recognized world-class artists today? Well you’ve guessed it.

In 2005, after Krystian Zimerman, another Pole won this competition (you probably know that Chopin, in spite of his French name, was Polish by origin), Rafal Blechacz.

I have added below a link to a Youtube video from Polish television of the recital of the winner. I suggest you ignore the poor image and sound quality and skip the introduction, and go directly to the music. Amazing isn’t it?

(Update Jan 31, 2016: see also my blog post on the winner of the 2015 competition, Song-Jin Cho here)

Rafal Blechacz

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Blechacz live two years ago, he still looks rather shy and is not your flashy Lang Lang-style virtuoso at first sight. But then he sits down at the piano and you cannot be but amazed but how beautiful he plays.

Chopin’s Préludes

Chopin’s préludes, especially op. 28, are among his most famous works. And in my opinion, they are among the most beautiful pieces for piano ever written. Don’t get me wrong, Beethoven sonatas are amazing, Schubert’s late works are very beautiful, etc. But there is a certain intensity in the Preludes that makes them very special to me.

Obviously, they’ve been recorded many times, both Argerich and Pollini, Blechacz predecessors in Warsaw, have done excellent versions. You also wouldn’t go wrong with Rubinstein (obviously) or Chopin Complete The Preludes Rafal Blechacz Deutsche Grammophon

But my favorite these days is Rafal Blechacz recording on Deutsche Grammophon. Particularly beautiful are no. 13 in F sharp minor, and the Raindrops no. 15 is so delicately played it really reminds you of a light summer drizzle.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Prestoclassical), both physically and as download.

And as promised above, the Polish TV show on the winning recital at the 2005 Warsaw competition.