10 Great Female Pianists
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
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.
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
Maria João Pires Plays Chopin Nocturnes
Not only has Maria Pires made a considerable name for herself on the concert platform, she has raised four children and done up a farmhouse. That's some energetic lady!
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 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 Plays Faure
In the 17th arrondissiment of Paris you will find the Rue Marguerite Long. It's just off the Boulevard Periphique.
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 Plays Arabesque No 1 by Debussy
Kathryn Stott comes across as a very well rounded individual. When not on tour she loves to take her lively dog Archie for walks and spend time with her daughter.
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
The Labèques aren't the only pianists to have an unusual arrangement with their partners - Michuko Uchia lives next door to her partner Robert Cooper, director general with the EU for external and politico-military affairs - though most of his time is spent in Brussells.
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.
Indeed she has recorded a cycle of the major keyboard works of Bach spanning 1994 through to 2005 for Hyperion, described by The Sunday Times as 'one of the record glories of our age'.
Harking back to the times when composers would conduct from the keyboard, Angela Hewitt has directed the Lucerne Festival Strings, Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Zurcher Kammerorchester from this position.
Having dual Canadian and British nationality she has collected various awards and honorary degrees from both sides of the pond. In 2003 BBC Radio 3 started a listener's award - she became it's first recipient. Gramophone, one of the foremost classical music magazines, named her 'Artist of the year' in 2006.
She has given back in a way may musicians do, getting children engaged in music and is an ambassador for the Orkidstra project in Ottowa. The Sistema-inspired programme is designed to instill commitment, tolerance and teamwork in children, skills to take them through life.
She is quoted as saying: 'When I was a kid I dreamt of being in a musical because I loved to sing and dance. Perhaps that's why I'm so preoccupied with making the piano do the same. Music is mostly song and dance anyway.'
I couldn't agree more.
Angela Hewitt Plays Bach Preludes and Fugues
9: Lilli Kraus 1903 - 1986
Lili Kraus' teachers were eminent Hungarian musicians of the day - Arnold Szekely, Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok and later the venerated Artur Schnabel. Schnabel nurtured her love of Mozart and Beethoven and these two composers became her calling cards. She recorded many discs of chamber music with these two giants of the classical era at their heart, including all the violin and piano sonatas of Mozart with Szymon Goldberg, and later all the solo piano sonatas and most of the piano concertos.
In 1930 she married Otto Mandl, a wealthy industrialist with whom she had two children, who sold up and unselfishly devoted his life to supporting his wife's career.
During a tour of Indonesia in WWII when the whole family tagged along, Lili Kraus was arrested and imprisoned for two years. Conditions were very harsh - she endured the dual blows of forced hard labour on two cups of rice a day, and no piano. Eventually she had access to the commandant's piano for one precious hour a week. Eventually she and her family were flown to Australia where she needed to recover from malnutrition. Nevertheless it wasn't long before she resumed touring.
Teaching was another of Lili Krauss' passions - she took on her first pupil at the almost laughable age of eight, and at only twenty she became a professor at the Vienna Academy. She spent a period teaching at a university in Cape Town and was very emphatic in her views on how to play Mozart:
"Only people who are conventionally and superficially acquainted with Mozart can ever come to the idea that he should be played delicately or lifelessly - prettily. Never, never, never!"
That Lili Krauss understood the complexities of this eighteenth century composer inside out is indisputable. The most notable Mozart performances may take you to the darkest places during the yearning slow movements, but they also exude a flexible robustness dancing up and down the aisles with a twinkle in the eye. You're treated to a constellation with Lili Krauss.
Lili Krauss Playing Mozart Sonatas (Recording of the Century)
10: Martha Argerich 1941 -
Speak of Martha Argerich and the word aggresive possibly comes to mind. Some might argue she produces the most powerful sound for the piano of any woman and plays like a man. She is the swashbuckler of the female piano world.
But her playing is as if she pours glasses of wine - for some the nose breathes in the most complex notes, for others they are vinegar. Yes, she can undoubtedbly tackle the 'big' concerti, the giants that the Russians turn out, but I'd choose a filigree Scarlatti or damsel winged Mozartian scalic runs sprinkled with gold dust to a pounding Tschaikovsky Concerto number 1. Tschaikovsky played by Argerich, not Argerich playing Tschaikovsky would be my option. Nevertheless, she remains a favourite of many a classical music aficionado, and is considered in some circles, the world's foremost female pianist. Listen to the quieter voice, though, they frequently have more to say, and in fewer words.
Personally I don't serve her wine at my table, but I do defend the right of those who can't do without a crate in the cellar. One cannot escape the fact that Martha Argerich possesses a spectacularly impressive technique. It's just not my tipple.
Martha Argerich Plays the Piano Cncerto No1 by Tschaikovsky
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© 2018 Frances Metcalfe