The piano is a unique instrument in the musical world: although it is by nature a percussive instrument, the skilled performer is able to coax out of it a singing tone and sustained melody, underscored by supporting harmonies. An individual pianist is able to perform deliver more music than any other instrumentalist in the same amount of time. As a means of musical expression in classical music, it is without equal.
The pianists of the past were the musical superstars of their time. Sergei Rachmaninoff, the famous composer who was also a phenomenal performer of the instrument for which he wrote, reportedly made $300,000 a year during the Depression at a time when a 5-course meal cost $1.25 – an annual salary the equivalent of $18 million dollars today. Franz Liszt and Ignace Paderewski had legions of female admirers. The piano salon was the equivalent of the concert hall of today, the top pianists the superstars of their era.
Ever since recording technology first permitted performances to be committed for posterity, the greatest pianists of the world have set down their interpretations. While the medium arrived just too late for some of the greats – Liszt lived long enough to record but didn’t, and a recording of Brahms speaking and playing is so distorted as to be basically worthless – we are still fortunate to have recordings of the playing of amazing artists. Several pupils of Liszt and pupils of pupils of Chopin have left invaluable recorded legacies; early recordings exist of the pianist-composers Grieg, Saint-Saens, and Debussy. Higher fidelity recordings exist of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff performing their own works, as well as many other great pianists of the time.
As technology advanced and Long-Playing records became easy to make (around 1950), the politics of music also changed – competitions abounded, and pretty soon lesser known pianists were able to make a record. The existence of a record was not a guarantee of quality, and the more records entered the market, the more diluted customer discernment became. Tastes changed as pianists capable of a more personal form of expression and with links to the lineage of great composers and performers disappeared. But their playing exists on record.
The Piano Files is dedicated to the best recorded piano performances ever made.