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10 Great Female Pianists

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

1: Alicia de Larrocha 1923 - 2009

Alicia de Larrocha is the foremost Spanish pianist of the modern era who played out a career lasting almost seventy years. She was born and died in Barcelona.

Her mother and aunt took lessons from the composer Granados, and at the age of two, Alicia was showing signs of musical ability and her aunt began to teach her the piano. At three she moved on to have lessons from the celebrated teacher Frank Marshall who had also been a pupil of Granados at the Conservatori Superior del Musica Liceu She was to head her alma mater in 1959 after Marshall's death.

Her first recital at six heralded the glittering career to come through which she showcased composers of her beloved country. She championed all the Spanish composers of note. When you listen to a piece like Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, she transports you there. You can feel the heat, smell the oranges, see the bouganvilliea as she winds along the paths, secretively, seductively, unfettered. These native compositions, sultry, tempestuous and highly colourful are bewitchingly captured by her agile fingers.

Alicia de Larrocha's Spanish repertory may dominate her memory but her recordings of Mozart, the impressionists and Rachmaninov are also favourites of many a collector of piano music.

Alicia de Larrocha

10-great-female-pianists

Alicia de Larrocha Plays

2: Mitsuko Uchida 1948 -

The sharpness of Mitsuko Uchida's penetrative intellectual approach has set her apart from the lower ranks of concert pianists. Her performances of Schubert and Mozart are legendary. As Martha Argerich is capable of almost brutal power, tackling the monumental concertos of Prokoviev and Tchaikovsky, Uchida's nebulous sparkle belies an inner strength, mellifluously thoughtful without the falter of over calculation.

Born in Japan she moved to Vienna when she was 12 when her father became the Japanese ambassador to Austria. Now she has made London her home, a darling of British music lovers and a Dame of the British Empire.

She is very health conscious. An inner ear complaint causing vertigo stopped play for months and she has postponed a recording of the Beethoven Diabelli variations until 2020.

Mitsuko Uchida has pared down her concert schedule too, giving around 50 concerts a year rather than the more gruelling 120 as well as running the Marlboro Summer School in Vermont. She firmly believes slow burn is advantageous and the pressure to rush out onto the concert touring treadmill for up and coming soloists immense, and unadvisable.

Her own experience of her career gradually expanding its wings has given her time to develop naturally. Even when she won a competition aged 15 she wasn't sure a lifetime at the piano was for her. Nowadays she is completely wrapped up in the genre, she loves always to be playing. "For me, music is all-consuming," she says.

While she is renowned for her classical interpretations she is also a comfortable visitor to twentieth century giants. Her recording of the Schoenberg concerto earned her The Gramophone Award for best concerto.

Prestigious orchestras of the world have welcomed her to play with them such as the Concertgebouw and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and has been artist in residence at both the Berlin Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestras.

She advises,"...have the decency to try to decipher what other people, who are a million times greater than you, might have thought. That's my basic principle in life."

What wise words.

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Mitsuko Uchido Plays Schubert Impromtu No 3

3: Maria João Pires 1944 -

There aren't many well known Portuguese classical musicians to the dollar so for a woman of Maria João Pires' calibre to come out of that Iberian country is a real bonus.

She was born in the capital, Lisbon, in 1944 and by the age of seven had notched up a public performance under her belt.

Marie João Pires has remained a busy person. During her career alongside her concert tours, she has recorded extensively with Erato and Deutsche Grammophon, and immersed herself in philosophy and the education of children, concentrating on those from disadvantaged backgrounds. On top of that she has raised four children and done up a farmhouse.

Her repertoire is largely concentrated around the baroque and classical eras - Bach, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven with forays into the great romantics. A chamber music enthusiast, she has appeared at some of the major festivals embracing this genre, including the prestigious Schubertiade plus Edinburgh and Lucerne. She is the piano end of the duo with violinist Auguste Dumay with whom toured worldwide since 1989.

Nimble fingered, her style is cast in joyous spontaniety alternated by the hushed reverence of slow movements where many an artist has not come up to expectation. Maria João Pires does not disappoint.

Maria João Pires announced her retirement during 2018 and gave her final concerto performances with her long time partnership with Bernard Haitink. She will be a great loss to the stage, but at 74, surely she deserves to close the keyboard lid on the general public.

Maria João Pires

10-great-female-pianists

Maria João Pires Plays Chopin Nocturnes

4: Annie Fischer 1914 - 1995

Rather fittingly, this Hungarian prodigy made her debut as a mere eight year old playing Beethoven's first piano concerto. Fitting, as her association with this great composer became legendary.

Like Mitsuko Uchida, Annie Fischer's repertoire and fame was distilled to a select few where profound insight and interpretation became compulsive and essential listening for those in the know. She could be both sonorous and mercurial, dash off a little something as if to say, 'oh, never heard that before, how wonderful', or produce a depth reaching into annals previously untapped.

She married Aladar Toth, director of the Budapest Opera in 1936. They moved to Sweden during the second world war to escape Jewish persecution ( Fischer was a Jewess), returning to Hungary in 1946 when she was able to resume touring, which she did almost to the end of her life.

She was something of pianist's pianist - her peers were often to be spotted attending her concerts. Nevertheless she was also rather irreverently referred to as 'Ashtry Annie' on account of the fact that she and a cigarette were inseparable only when she was at the keyboard. Whether this was true of when she was practising in private is speculative. Despite her rather bird-like appearance she was capable of thundering through Beethoven's HammerKlavier sonata - no guesses for wondering why it was so named.

She was a daredevil when she needed to be, occasionally at the expense of the odd wrong note which quite frankly was neither here nor there when the overall impression was unforgettable. Listening to her play works you think you're familiar with is a revelation, like looking at a famous picture and noticing details hitherto undetected.

Annie Fischer won the Kossuth Prize three times, the highest Hungarian state award and died listening to Bach. Fitting.

Annie Fischer

10-great-female-pianists

Annie Fischer Plays Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata

5: Marguerite Long 1874 - 1966

Nowadays Marguerite Long is perhaps best remembered for being the preferred pianist for the premier of Ravel's piano concerto in G. Preferred to, it has to be said, over the composer himself whose pianistic abilities had waned due to the brain disorder that eventually led to his death, and he was persuaded to step aside and allow her to take charge of the challenging difficulties. Instead Ravel opted to be the conductor and dedicated the piece to her.

Marguerite Long's association with Ravel stretched a long way back. The final movement of his piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin was dedicated to her husband, Joseph de Marliave when he was killed in the Great War in 1914. The first performance of this work was also given by Long in 1919.

Faure was another composer Marguerite Long with whom she had close ties. He was the director of the Paris Conservertoire where she also taught, but his failure to appoint her to a professorship resulted in a schism between the two. He relented in 1920 when she finally won the chair but he probably resented her assertion that she was the leading interpreter of his music. In the meantime she established her own music school. Many leading pianists of the time took classes there and she continued to teach into her mid eigthies.

In 1940 Marguerite Long paired up with the great violinist Jacques Thibaut to form a duo, only ending with his death in an air crash in 1953. Together they established the Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaut International Competition for pianists and violinists. Today it includes singers with the renowned soprano Regine Crespin's name now included in the competition's title. Illustrious musicians have sat on the jury: Yehudi Menuhin and Aldo Ciccolini are two of them.

Marguerite Long's personal credentials, despite being a formidable pianist, was called into question by her pushy reputation - Faure called her a shameless woman, but then, she won't be the first demanding prima donna to have taken to the stage, nor will she the last. Best to remember her for her pianistic abilities.

Marguerite Long

10-great-female-pianists

Marguerite Long Plays Faure

6: Kathryn Stott 1958 -

Elegantly poised, lifting her hands gracefully off the keys is Kathryn Stott's trademark style. One I had the privilege to see at a concert in Harrogate, England some years ago.

This composed pianist was playing Faure, a French composer in whom she has which she has a particular interest. Her recording of his compositions have won accolades and since 1995 she has been the artistic director of Faure and the French Connection (she loves French music in general) and she has recently become the artistic director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music.

She teaches at the Norwegian Academy which means many trips to Oslo each year, and what with global tours she is very busy lady. As with many pianists, she collaborates with other musicians including the fine musician Yo Yo Ma, who she calls ' my little cellist friend', a duo which has lasted over thirty years. To mark the thirtieth year itself, they recorded 'The Arc of Life' featuring some very well known pieces such as 'The Swan' from Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals, to a less familiar prelude by Gershwin.

Kathryn Stott's pianistic education has remarkable provenance. One of her earliest teachers was Vlado Perlemuter who in turn had studied with Alfred Cortot. And who had Alfred Cortot's own teacher taken lessons from? Only the great Frederick Chopin who died in 1849. No wonder she presents the beautifully crafted music that she does.

Almost certainly due to the fact she has given French music such prominence throughout the years, the French government appointed Kathryn Stott Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres. Being British and now living in France, this is a happy double for me, particularly as she is one of my firm favourites, not just out of pianists, but instrumentalists in general.

Kathryn Stott

10-great-female-pianists

Kathryn Stott Plays Arabesque No 1 by Debussy

7: Katia and Marielle Labèque 1950/1952 -

Born two years apart almost to the day in the Basque region of France, these two sisters have cornered the sibling market. Four hands at the piano has never been more sexy. A sister act spawning a chunky new portfolio of music for piano duos.

It was their Tuscan born mother, herself a talented pianist who had taken lessons from Marguerite Long, who started her daughters off at the respective ages of five and three before moving on to the Paris Conservatoire.

This unconventional partnership - the sisters still live together despite one being married and the other having been so, and is currently in a relationship - clearly sends a message to the musical world: don't even think about stuffing us into any particular box. Madonna is a friend and has been a touring third to their one and two. Not that anyone has precedence.

Composers have been falling over themselves to write for them from Philip Glass and Michael Nyman to the less well encountered (for anyone who isn't fully immersed in the world of contemporary music, that is). Flip that side of their interest over and you'll find staunchly popular works, enshrined in recordings. Take Ravel's Bolero, its own image bolstered by Olympic gold ice skaters Torville and Dean - re-presented by four-handed piano duet plus percussion section and Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin (their 1980 recording of this work sold half a million copies).

Transport yourself back in time to the days before you could simply download iTunes, slot in a CD, or carefully place a needle on vinyl, and you are revisiting a world where, to acquaint yourself with the latest opera, symphony, piano concerto perhaps, why not grab your own sister or family member, or legitimately invite someone you admire, fancy, want to get to know better within the confines of conventional and acceptable social behaviour? And how better than transcriptions for four hands at the upright festooned with family snapshots in the parlour? The Labeques, though, have grabbed two concert grands with their four talented hands and wheeled them firmly into the twenty-first century.

The sisters have played with most of the prestigious orchestras in the world and although they are known for championing contemporary composers, they are just as comfortable sampling baroque and classical delights under Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Sir Simon Rattle.

So here we have two for the price of one.

The Labèque Sisters Play Philip Glass

8: Angela Hewitt 1958 -

Harrogate has a long history of putting on concerts and Angela Hewitt was another well respected pianist to come and give the town a treat - and I had the good fortune to go along and be entertained. She played an all Bach programme, a composer she is closely associated with.