Here's my list of famous piano players. I've added descriptions of their playing styles, as well as my favorite ones of the bunch at the end...
Ludwig van Beethoven (Germany, 1770-1827). The great composer first became well-known as a piano virtuoso in his day, with a powerful and direct playing style.
Frederic Chopin (Poland, 1810-1849). Chopin played with a soft, elastic delicateness. His playing style was very similar to his reserved, polite nature. Listeners said that he had the ability to create inky and subtle colors, and was more like a profound poet than a keyboard acrobat.
Franz Liszt (Hungary, 1813-1886). One of the most famous piano players of all time! He had piano superpowers, and used to dazzle audiences with his extraordinary abilities.
He was well-known (and mocked!) for acting dramatically while performing, contorting his face with passion and swaying his body. He was the first person to hold solo piano recitals, and the first to sit sideways to the audience so everyone could see his hands in action.
Anton Rubinstein (Russia, 1829-1894). A powerful pianistic force of nature. He used to give his audience headaches! Still, he had a wonderfully poetic and noble way of playing. Apparently he used to make loads of mistakes when he played, since he was focusing on expressing his personal idea of the music.
Hans von Bulow (Germany, 1830-1884). A virtuoso who performed the premieres of both Tchaikovsky and Liszt's first piano concertos. Von Bulow had an incredible memory - he once learned an entire piece by reading the score on a train journey, then performed it the same evening at a concert!
Sergei Rachmaninoff (Russia, 1873-1943). Known as a famous piano player before a composer. His hands were ridiculously large, which allowed him to make huge stretches across the keyboard and play widely-spaced bell-like chords.
His playing style was extremely clean and precise, with a golden, lyrical tone. We're actually very lucky - there are piano roll recordings of Rachmaninoff playing his own music, a wonderful treat!
Josef Hofmann (Poland, 1876-1957). A supreme virtuoso with a calm and neat playing style. He added all sorts of inventive modifications to his piano to get the effects he wanted. For instance, some of his pianos had narrower keys than normal for his small hands.
Arthur Rubinstein (Poland, 1887-1982). A charming old world personality combined with a well-traveled, well-read intellectual, and of course a master pianist.
Rubinstein's powerful, golden interpretations are filled with the joy of music, and made him one of the most famous pianists of the 20th century.
Claudio Arrau (Chile, 1903-1991). Arrau had a very rich, heavy tone, and an ability to bring out moving emotions from simple melodies. I really like his "Romantic" style of playing. A hero in his native country, he even has a wide avenue named after him in Santiago, Chile. Wow!
Vladimir Horowitz (Russia/America, 1903-1989). This Russian giant was famed for his electrifying performances (and adaptions) of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies, among other works. He liked to alter the scores of composers' pieces to make them more "pianistic". He was also able to play astonishingly quickly and with astonishing dynamic range.
I once heard an anecdote in which Richter turned up to a performance where the windows had been broken in by a fierce blizzard outside. The great pianist calmly sat at the piano and played perfectly, while icy winds blew all around the room. It's usually almost impossible to play piano if your hands are cold - your fingers seize up and don't move! But somehow Richter did it...
Jorge Bolet (Cuba, 1914-1990). Bolet's slow, percussive and weighty playing style has what I'd call a "glassy" tone. He had an ability to inject an infinite variety of images and feelings into his interpretations, and was especially skilled in the Romantic repertoire.
Dinu Lipatti (Romania, 1917-1950). Lipatti was an astonishingly talented virtuoso, who tragically died at the age of 33 from cancer. He left a small handful of recordings (about 5 CDs), with deeply inspiring interpretations of Chopin. Perhaps one of the most naturally gifted pianists ever to have lived.
Georges Cziffra (Hungary, 1921-1994). Cziffra's explosive, fiery playing was perhaps a reflection of his colorful life. He performed in circuses, was a tank commander in WW2, and suffered injustice in a labor camp for several years. He was noted for his lightning-fast interpretations of virtuoso showpieces and his improvisation skills.
Alfred Brendel (Austria, 1931-). Brendel is an intellectual, known for his thoughtful and intelligent performances. He thinks that it is a pianist's job to be responsible to the piece, not to show off or disrespect the composer's work. He was self-taught and his career took off very slowly, but nowadays he commands huge respect in the musical world.
Maurizio Pollini (Italy, 1942-). A virtuoso of the highest order, Pollini plays with a shining, energetic, and perfect technique. His massive repertory covers several hundred years of piano music, right up to modern composers.
I think that composers are the most important people in music. After all, without composers, there wouldn't be any music!
But performers are also hugely important - they translate the composer's vision into something we can hear and enjoy. They also add their personal artistry, creating a unique interpretation.
This is especially true with the piano, since it's a very complex instrument which can express a huge range of shades and moods.
Here are my top three favorite famous piano players, with a video to demonstrate what I like about them:
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