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Blog for 9 February 2009

My Favorite Pianists

As I am frequently asked who my favorite pianists are, I thought I would list a few of them here. This list, however, is far from complete. I plan to add more names when I find the time to jot more down.

Nikolai Lugansky (Николай Луганский)
Although he is monstrously young (born in 1972), Russian pianist Nikolia Lugansky has already achieved stellar success in my book by recording the most thrilling rendition of Chopin's études I have ever heard. I listen to this CD several times a week. It is a great inspiration to me.

Nikolai Lugansky was the favorite pupil of the late Tatiana Nikolayeva, the great Russian Bach player at the Moscow Conservatory. At the age of 16, he took second prize in the 1988 Leipzig Bach Competition; two years later, second in the Rachmaninov Competition; and, in 1994, first prize in the Tchaikovsky Competition. Lugansky is blessed with an enviably large repertoire, acquired through hardwork, discipline, and a superhuman ability to learn. In addition to a breathtaking technique, Lugansky has the soul of a poet. See his website.

Ivo Pogorelich
Born in Belgrade in 1958, Ivo Pogorelich is more than just a pianist: he is a visionary artist. Porgorlich also studied at the Moscow Conservatory. In addition to displaying the highest caliber of discipline and musicianship, he stands virtually alone in his ability, willingness, courage and drive to discover and reveal new insights into the classical literature for the piano. His brilliant and original interpretations have shocked the narrow minded people among classical music audiences. Perhaps one would not want to imitate any of Pogorelich’s interpretations (and one should never imitate any other pianist, in any event), but thanks to Pogorelich’s genius, each piece he plays is transformed and rejuvenated. He makes you rethink everything. His version of Liszt’s piano sonata, for instance, is full of revelations and insights that no one before Pogorelich ever imaged existed in the piece.

I have had the pleasure of attending several of Pogorelich’s recitals in San Francisco. Each experience was a musical epiphany.

Sviatoslav Richter (Святослав Теофилович Рихтер)
Perhaps the greatest Russian pianist ever, Sviatoslav Richter (1915-1997) plays the piano with more passion than any other pianist I have ever heard. Indeed, sometimes his passionate approach traverses into violence and rage. His filmed performance of Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude (op. 10, no. 12) (available on YouTube) is both brilliant and frightening. Because of Richter’s fantastic and unparalleled technique, one is utterly unaware of the daunting technical difficulties of the étude. Instead, Richter draws attention only to the hauntingly sorrowful and frequently rage-filled melody.

Although largely self taught, Richter studied at the Moscow Conservatory with Heinrich Neuhaus, who brilliantly summed up Richter’s greatest gift: “His singular ability to grasp the whole and at the same time miss none of the smallest details of a composition suggests a comparison with an eagle who from his great height can see as far as the horizon and yet single out the tiniest detail of the landscape.”

A musical composition is an entire world – a world whose description is told in the language of music. Richter understood the language of music and could perceive the world contained within each composition and then clarify that world for his audience. At the same time, he was a master of detail.

Martha Argerich
I love the elegance, sensuousness, and dreaminess of Martha Argerich’s playing. Most impressive is her fascinating ability to treat the piano as an entire orchestra. She seeks out and presents the different instrumental voices in a piano solo piece. Somehow, she is able to assign different tonal qualities to each voice and leave the listener with the impression that one is listening to many different instruments playing together rather than a single piano.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet
Jean-Yves Thibaudet was born in the center of French gastronomy – Lyon, France in 1961. This may explain the richness, delightfulness, and headiness of his playing. His interpretations are the musical equivalent of a sensuously rich fourteen-course dinner accompanied by the finest bottles of champagne. M. Thibaudet holds a special place in the pantheon of great pianists for his ability to bring sparkle, intensity, and an ethereal quality to whatever he plays. I imagine that Franz Liszt played exactly like Thibaudet.

When he was twelve, Thibaudet entered the Paris Conservatory where he studied with Aldo Ciccolini and Lucette Descaves. Three years later, he won the premier Prix du Conservatoire, and at the age of 18 he won the Young Concert Artists Auditions in New York.

M. Thibaudet’s CD of Liszt’s opera transcriptions is among my most favorite recordings. I listen to the entire CD several times every week. M. Thibaudet plays with a wonderfully refreshing playfulness and gracefulness that is made possible by a stupendous technique that can only have been acquired through years of disciplined practice. One must also pay homage to Thibaudet’s mind and soul. His interpretations of Debussy and Satie are intensely evocative. I hope it is unnecessary to be French to play Debussy as perfectly as Thibaudet, but obviously it helps.

Richard Dowling
I must admit straight away that Texan pianist Richard Dowling is a friend of mine. Normally, one ought to be sceptical of endorsements from friends and family members, but in this case, anyone who has had the thrill of listening to Dowling play the piano will agree that he is one of the most remarkable pianists of our age.

Dowling has an amazingly beautiful and sensual way of caressing the keys as he plays. Arthur Rubinstein used to remark that he made love to the piano when he played. This comment always seemed somewhat fanciful until I witnessed Dowling play the piano. Somehow, the beautiful way Dowling's hands make contact with the keyboard translates into exquisitely beautiful music the likes of which I have never heard before. Dowling is the most romantic and poetic of pianists. His recordings of Chopin are unrivaled for beauty.

Whether he is playing Chopin, Ravel, or Beethoven, one of the most delightful characteristics of Dowling's playing is the "dramatic pause." He will run up to a climactic note and then hold the note in order to build up tension and excitement in a dreamy suspension before continuing the phrase. It is a fantastic effect.


Marc-André Hamelin
Quebecois pianist Marc-André Hamelin sits with the piano gods on Olympus. His technique is legendary. No piano piece is beyond his grasp. Witness his stunning 2002 recording of Liszt's Paganini Études.
Hamelin distinguishes himself from his fellow gods by his choice of repertoire. He invariably champions the works of forgotten masters and the forgotten masterpieces of composers whose place in history is assured. Like
Nikolai Lugansky, Hamelin has a tremendously large repertoire. One wonders how he could have learned so many lengthy and complicated pieces and still be so young. Where do the Hamelins and Luganskys of this world find the time? The ability to learn new pieces quickly is obviously a sign of a superior mind and the mark of genius.

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Frederick Hodges

May 2009



Frederick Hodges