Is it really possible to name the greatest pianist of all time?
Who is the greatest pianist of all time? Of course, this is, at least to some extent, a subjective judgement. Much like a question of who the best living musician is, you are unlikely to see a great number and variety of people giving the same answer to the question. Indeed, there are many complex issues which can make naming the greatest pianist of all time much easier said than done. In this blog post, we point out some of those issues, but also how they could be overcome to assist in reaching as objective an answer to the question as can likely be reached.
You can't even hear some reputable pianists play...
Of course, hearing performances of many renowned 20th and 21st century pianists is unlikely to be difficult, as such pianists have had performances recorded and recordings of their performances are likely to be easy to obtain on physical formats like LPs and CDs and maybe even through downloads using services like iTunes. However, there are many similarly renowned 18th and 19th century pianists who performed during periods when recording performances was not even possible; hence, their piano playing can only really be judged today through reading contemporaries' reports, many of which can be considered unreliable for various reasons.
How precisely should high quality pianism be defined?
Another problem with attempting to identify the greatest pianist of all time is that the widely accepted criteria that a great pianist should meet have differed between eras. Ideals of pianism have changed especially dramatically between the 18th and 20th centuries. From, for example, the 19th to the 20th century, romantic pianism became less fashionable, while intellectual pianism increased in popularity. Techniques used in romantic pianism that would not be considered typical in high quality pianism today include loose rhythm and a lack of faithfulness to the score.
However, it does seem likely that pianists today are generally more talented than pianists in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is partly because pianists today have been able to benefit from learning from the works and examples of many past great pianists and so build upon them, plus because the world population is so much bigger than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries and so there is also likely to be a much bigger number of pianists; this bigger number is likely to have led to more intense competition between pianists and therefore encouraged higher standards.
Who is generally considered the greatest pianist of all time?
As it isn't possible to reach an entirely objective judgement of who the best pianist of all time is, the next closest thing is to judge who has been and is generally considered to be the best pianist of all time. This person seems to be the 19th century Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt. He left many transcriptions and etudes that are difficult even for many modern pianists to play, so seeing Liszt playing them must have been pretty awe-inspiring! Anyone got a time machine?