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 and additional melodic lines. An individual pianist is able to perform deliver more music than any other single 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 solo 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 roughly 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 superstar musicians of their era.
Ever since recording technology first permitted performances to be captured 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 many 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-Saëns, and Debussy. Higher fidelity recordings exist of Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff performing their own works, as well as many of the greatest 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 lesser-known pianists were more easily able to make a record. The existence of a commercial recording was not a guarantee of musical quality, and the more records entered the market, the more diluted customer discernment became. Tastes changed as pianists who were capable of a more personal form of expression and with links to the lineage of great composers and performers aged and died. But their playing exists on record and we can today listen to and appreciate a very different kind of artistry than we are likely to hear in the concert hall.
The Piano Files is dedicated to revealing the best recorded piano performances in existence.