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Greatest Female Pianists

Updated on November 23, 2016

Classical piano is a field that has been mainly dominated by male pianists back when the piano was still at its gestational stage until today that it has been well-engineered - throughout the history. You might have heard the big names like Horowitz, Rubinstein, Arrau, Serkin, Richter, Gilels - of the piano's golden age - and Brendel, Lang Lang, Kissin, Zimmerman, Ashkenazy - of its commercial age. One might mistakenly think that it's easy to cherry-pick from the gamut of the greatest pianists without vying for a female.

True enough, male pianists far outnumber their female counterparts, but to say that the best select is safely confined within the realm of masculine dominance is hypocritical and foolish. There have always been outstanding females whose technique and musicality in piano playing - if not exceed - equal some or at least one of their male contemporaries.

A Taste of Myra Hess's Brilliance

MYRA HESS (1890 February 25 – 1965 November 25)

Myra Hess was a British pianist more popular with the works of Viennese and German composers such as Mozart, and Beethoven and Schumann respectively. Nevertheless, lied excellently under her belt was a wider repertoire that included Scarlatti and Chopin among others. Besides being a classical musician and a soloist, she also played contemporary music, joined chamber music and taught jazz. In 1941, she was awarded DBE for her contributions in cultural uplifting during the WWII, instigating her Lunchtime Concerts in London's National Gallery during the weekdays consistently for six and half years. The following year, the Royal Philharmonic Society honored her with the Gold Medal.

As a student, she was the youngest at her time to have gained a certificate from Trinity college of Music. Further, she was given a Steinway Medal and the Ada Lewis Scholarship while continuing her studies at Guildhall School of Music. In Royal Academy of Music in London, she graduated with the MacFarren Gold medal.

Despite her talent, her fame did not spring up instantly. It was after performing the Schumann Piano Concerto Op. 54 with Wilhelm Mengelberg that her concert engagements skyrocketed to about a hundred per year in Europe alone. In America, it was her extremely favorably reviewed debut in Aeolian Hall in New York that established her great reputation despite it only receiving a handful of audience.

Of Bachauer's tenacity - playing Rachmaninoff

Of Bachauer's tenacity - playing Brahms

GINA BACHAUER (1913 May 21– 1976 August 22)

Gina Bachauer, a Greek pianist, was probably the only - or the first - female pianist in her time to tour around the globe playing Rachmaninoff concertos - a feat more commonly attributed to male pianists in the 20th century. Apart from this, she also made a recording of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2, another heavyweight concerto. She debuted in 1935 and 1937 in Athens and Paris respectively, playing Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 - at the time considered impossible to play. After graduating in Athens Conservatory, she moved to Paris to study in École Normale du Musique. While studying in France, she acquainted herself with French music and studied under Alfred Cortot, a French musician who knew personally Ravel and Debussy. She believed that no one else would have given her a better understanding of their music.

Although, some written sources indicated that she studied with Rachmaninoff, according to Rachmaninoff's family - in a phone call - she did not. She, nevertheless, played Rachmaninoff concertos without shortcomings in style and technique, most likely, just as how the composer would have instructed her to play.

According to her, Rachmaninoff was not really a teacher, who only had taught her telling, "Don't try to copy what I am doing. You must try again and again until you find your own way of doing it. When you will show me what you want to do with that phrase and if you can convince me, then it is right." Indeed, her style was so unique and simple she made a piece sound so easy and appealing. In Harold Schonberg's words - an eminent music critic: "Her technique and her interpretations are sui generis. One does not have to see her to recognize her playing."

De Larrocha with another virtuosic composer, Albeniz

ALICIA DE LARROCHA (1923 May 23 – 2009 September 25)

Alicia de Larrocha was a piano wonder. She had small hands and short in stature, only measuring 4ft 9in. Nevertheless, she tackled well the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 - infamous for being the most difficult piano concerto for it required plus size hands to be played convincingly.

As a Spanish, she was a prime exponent of Granados's, de Falla's and Albeniz's music that also demanded a pianist to be physically gifted with long fingers. She won many awards - most important among them are four Grammys for her interpretations of Spanish composers and for a Ravel and a Faure concertos. In 1995, she became the first Spanish artist to be awarded the UNESCO Prize. Aside from being closely associated with her co-natives, she was also warmly regarded with Schumann and Mozart.

She may have been small in height, but there was never insufficiency in her command at the keyboard. She came from a family of musicians. Her parents were both pianists that when one critic noted that her talent is in her blood, was not a surprise. She started playing the piano at the age of 3. Yet unlike those who started in their toddler years, she was not exploited as a prodigy. Until her 20s, she was closeted in their family home, free of overwhelming publicity and pressure. Unless being invited to play overseas, she had no structured career during the WWII. Only after it had ended she started to tour Europe extensively and then the US.

The "Lioness" of the keyboard

MARTHA ARGERICH (b. 1941 June 5)

Martha Argerich, an Argentine pianist, is arguably the greatest living pianist, to date who burst into classical music arena after winning the VII International Chopin Piano Competition in 1965. She has since steadied linearly her career, continuously delivering sold-out concerts and exciting performances. She was highly acclaimed for her jaw-dropping recordings of some of the most technically demanding repertoire in the piano like the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 and Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3. Before joining the Chopin competition, she had been touring in Europe and won two major piano tilts: Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition and the Geneva International Music Competition - both in 1957. In 1970, she debuted in New York playing the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3, with Claudio Abbado.

In her unwavering charisma and talent, she has recorded for almost all the important classical labels especially the Deutsche Grammophon, where she has longest recording stint. In the 80s, she had felt "lonely" being on the stage alone, thereby lie-lowing in solo performances, and instead, concentrated on chamber music and concertos. Her critics and admirers were not only impressed by her musicality, but also by her boundless technique and energetic playing with minimal flamboyant tics while on the keyboard.

Biret on Liszt/Beethoven

IDIL BIRET (b.1941 November 21)

Idil Biret is a Turkish pianist who at the age of sixteen was already travelling throughout the world appearing with many of the world's most famed orchestras. She gained prominence with her interpretations of Romantic works. For Naxos, she recorded the complete works of Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin - for which she was given an award in the Grand Prix du Disque Frédéric Chopin. In 2007, she was honored with the Cross Order of Merit, the highest order of Poland for her contributions in their culture by her discs of Chopin. Her recording of Pierre Boulez's three sonatas in the same label won her the Gold Diapason in France.

In the long span of her professional career, she has released a cumulative of more than 50 CDs and LPs - including the complete work of Beethoven - under different recording companies throughout the world, working mainly on mainstream composers of the piano repertoire. Her interpretative taste and technique were developed by three eminent concert pianists and pedagogues, Nadia Boulanger, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff.

Pires at her best - perhaps

MARIA JOÃO PIRES (b. 1944 July 23)

Maria João Pires is a Portugal pianist who, at twenty-six, won in the Beethoven Bicentennial Competition in Brussels, leading her way to tour extensively in different countries especially Japan. Subsequently, she was found playing for the foremost orchestras.

In the 80s, she collaborated extensively with Claudio Abbado and Carlo Maria Giulini - two of the most distinguished conductors of the time. In the same decade, she debuted in Carnegie Hall.

Throughout her career, she has been active in the recording circuit, making strong and long ties with Erato, Denno and Deutsche Grammophon featuring Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin. One of her albums for Deutsche Grammophon was award the Grand Prix du Disque Frédéric Chopin, where she played the composer's second concerto and his 24 Preludes. Although she had won many thumbs up, at times her playing can be pretentious and contrived drawing a knitted brow from some feisty critics. As such is the case with her disc of Beethoven Sonatas. One from The Gramophone lambasted it a disappointment and overworked. At her best, however, she is one to effectively bring the music's aesthetic substance and subtle panache to her audience, dissecting music to its core and kneading it all together to its best.

As a musician, she has also dedicated herself to chamber music, taking time away from the solo spotlight. Together with Augustin Dumay, she released an album of violin sonatas of Debussy and Franck. Moreover, she teamed up with other musicians to work on Brahms's Grieg and Beethoven sonatas, in addition to working for different sonatas and trios of different composers.

Uchida - both as a conductor and a soloist

MITSUKO UCHIDA (b. 1948 December 20)

Mitsuko Uchida is a Japanese-born classical pianist, who excelled in the music of Mozart. In 1989, she was awarded the 1989 Gramophone Award - the British equivalent of Grammy Award - after recording all of the composer's piano sonatas and concerti. In 2011, she won a Grammy Award for her 2009 recording of the Mozart's Piano concertos nos. 23 and 24, where she was both the conductor and the soloist. A decade earlier, she won her first for her recording of Schoenberg Piano Concerto with Pierre Boulez. Among other precious accolades to add to her CV are a gold medal from Beethoven Competition (1969) and silver ones from the 8th International Chopin Piano Competition (1970) and Leeds Piano Competitions (1975)

She stands out in many different ways aside from being a pianist. She, on special occasions, conduct orchestras while playing as the soloist, and currently, is a co-director of Marlboro Music School and Festival - the mecca for great musicians all over the world. For her contributions in her field, she was awarded the DBE.

She was born in Japan, but honed most of her talent in Vienna, where her parents moved to as diplomats when she was 12 years old. In Vienna Academy of Music, she studied with Wilhelm Kempff and eventually became the favorite pupil of Artur Schnabel. After winning competitions in her 20s, she rose to concert circles playing with the most respected orchestras in Europe and America and continuously gaining acclaims for her interpretations of Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin.

Licad - in her Carnegie Hall debut

CECILE LICAD (b. 1961 May 11)

Cecile Licad is a Philippine-born pianist who in 1981 became a piano sensation after being awarded the once most coveted Leventritt Gold Medal - the same award won by Van Cliburn and Gary Graffman years earlier. (She was one of the youngest at 19 and did not know she was being pitted for the first price.) In addition to the medal were a three-year contract with CBS Masterworks and concert engagements with world-class orchestras and well-known conductors.

Her debut recording was with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Claudio Abbado conducting where she played Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2. It was a critical and a commercial success, topping the classical billboard charts for many months, making her among the most-sought concert artists of the day.

In 1985, her recording of Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2 was awarded "Grand Prix du Disque Frédéric Chopin." In her career, though, she has only recorded few, yet each of her albums has always among the best of its contemporaries and set a benchmark for a particular piano piece. More recently she has pioneered on bringing to the public rarely performed American piano music, with her albums of Gottschalk and American Piano Music Anthology.

At the age of 12, she flew to the US to study with Rudolf Serkin, a legendary pianist himself, at the Curtis Institute of Music, where eventually she won the Paul Mellon Award for being the most outstanding student. According to Serkin himself, Licad was his best student from all that he had.

The New Yorker hailed her as the "pianist's pianist."

Grimaud with another German B

HÉLÈNE GRIMAUD (b. 1969 November 7)

Hélène Grimaud is the French entry into the league of the greatest female pianists. She is not your typical pianist who goes on the concert platform to show-off. Instead, she cares for music - for her taste. Critics have hailed her as the "Glenn Gould" of the modern age, owing to her strangely genuine phrasing and risk-taking. She either pleases or displeases, yet, generally she gets rave applause and wide acclaims. It is her synesthesia - a neurological condition that makes her see colors with music - that may have helped her develop her musical sense and quirk.

Being one of the most respected concert pianists today, she has over 20 recordings to credit in her career - most of them are recorded for Deutsche Grammophon and centered on German composers. Nevertheless, she had a fair share of Chopin and Rachmaninoff.

When she was 15, she was awarded Grand Prix du Disque of the Académie Charles Cros for her recording of Rachmaninoff Sonata No. 2 while still a student at the Conservatoire de Paris. She may have been groomed to be a pianist, but her professions transcend music and piano. She also is a writer - has written three books - a human rights activist and an environmentalist - founded the Wolf Conservation Center. Truly, she is more than an artist - she is a humanitarian who offers up her talent and passion to mankind, to nature, and to wolves.

Wang/Abbado - Lucerne Festival

YUJA WANG (b. 1987 February 10)

Yuja Wang is - without a doubt - one of today's piano superstars, touring regularly in Asia, Europe and North America. She came into a public attention after filling in for Martha Argerich when the latter cancelled her engagement with the Boston Symphony Orcestra. She played Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 under the baton of Charles Dutoit. At 15, she moved to America to be trained at Curtis Institute of Music under the tutelage of Gary Graffman, who was moved by Wang's intelligence and good taste in addition to her formidable technique. Aside from her fast, fiery approach in piano performance, she is also notorious for coupling classical music with fashion.

She doesn't only please her audience by her first-rank athleticism in piano, but also by the dress she wears on stage - that watching her becomes a combo. Since the start of her career, she has been an exclusive recording artist of Deutsche Grammophon. She recorded concertos by Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Ravel and it seems that her recording company is weaning her to become the next Martha Argerich.

Claudio Abbado, upon hearing her, outright compared her to Argerich and invited her to play the Prokofiev Piano Concerto in 3 in Lucerne Festival. In the span of her career, she has amassed worldwide recognition as a first-rank piano phenomenon giving knock-out performances and sold-out concerts and has released seven albums so far. Prior to Curtis, she had flown to different countries to study and to compete, garnering different prizes.


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