It is well-known that piano education is taken quite seriously in Russia, which inevitably results in many Russian pianists being considered to be the greatest pianists.
From Rachmaninoff to Evgeny Kissin, today we look at the most famous Russian pianists that have come to dominate the classical music scene both in both centuries.
20th Century Russian Pianists
Grammy winner Richter was undoubtedly one of the most acclaimed pianists of the 20th century not only in Russia but also worldwide. He loved performing for the audience and toured Europe, China, and the U.S. throughout his career.
Richter was an exceptional virtuoso and had a very solid technique. For him the performer was only a bridge between the composer and the music, revealing the true meaning of the music piece with his virtuosity. Richer thought that the performer didn’t have the right to play anything other than what was written in the score and that the performer had to strictly obey the composer’s intention to present the most perfect interpretation of the music.
The most interesting thing about Richter is that he was a self-taught pianist in his teens and that having a career as a classical pianist wasn’t in his mind until 22.
Related: 5 Famous Pianists Who Started Late
Giving his first concert at the age of 12, Gilels studied under Heinrich Neuhaus, a renowned Soviet pianist at the time, at Moscow Conservatory during his post-graduate education.
Soviet Government gave Gilels permission to travel and perform outside the country. As a result, he became one of the first Soviet pianists to give concerts in the U.S. and Western Europe.
From Liszt to Debussy, Gilels had a vast repertoire, though it was more focused on German-Austrian composers such as Beethoven and Schumann. He was most known for his bright and controlled playing.
Praised and honored with medals by Rachmaninoff, Gilels is one of the greatest Russian pianists of all time.
6-time Grammy winner Vladimir Ashkenazy first rose to fame as he won second place at the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw.
Despite the pressure from the Soviet Government to become an informer for KGB, Ashkenazy refused to collaborate, leaving the USSR in 1963 permanently. He now holds two citizenships, Icelandic and Swedish, and lives in Pura, a small village in Switzerland.
While he was an internationally acclaimed pianist, he turned his focus primarily on conducting in the 1980s. Ashkenazy has directed the most prestigious orchestras in Europe since then. In 1970, he founded the Reykjavík Arts Festival, which still remains one of the oldest Art Festivals in Europe.
Ashkenazy is a living legend who continues to inspire future generations with his artistic vision and wisdom.
Known as one of the greatest composers and pianists of all time, Rachmaninoff is among the most famous Russian pianists.
While he is well-known as a composer now, Rachmaninoff was also a highly acclaimed classical pianist, performing all over the world and barely finding time to compose in his intense tour schedule.
His playing style emphasized clarity, brightness, and precision. Having extremely large hands, Rachmaninoff could play the most complex and demanding passages with ease by combining the convenience of his large hands with his exceptional piano technique. Moreover, his memorization skills were so advanced that he could play a piece only after first listening as if he had studied it for years.
Considered to be one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, his legacy will surely remain for decades as both a legendary composer and a virtuoso pianist.
Best known for his splendid technique and the phenomenal interpretations of late Rachmaninoff and Lizst pieces, Lazar Berman first started to play the piano at the age of 2 as a child prodigy.
At 3, he participated in a competition for the first time, and by the age of 7, he was already composing his own pieces and recording Mozart fantasias.
After his New York debut and the U.S. tour in 1975, Berman’s career took off, gaining international acclaim, and attracting the attention of the record labels like Deutsche Grammaphon and EMI.
He was one of the most famous Soviet pianists of the 20th century.
As a child prodigy, Tatiana Nikolayeva was born into a musical family, with both of her parents being professional musicians.
In 1950, she won the Bach Leipzig Piano Competition, which led her to build a vast repertoire afterward ranging across both European and Russian composers. However, she was best known for her mastery of Bach interpretations.
Other than having a successful career as a Soviet classical pianist, Tatiana Nikolayeva was also a highly acclaimed instructor and a composer, teaching to successor legends like Nikolai Lugansky. She also held the position of a jury member in many piano competitions worldwide.
Here’s a heavenly beautiful interpretation of Bach from Tatiana Nikolayeva.
The child of a prominent Russian painter Vladimir Gavrilov and professional Armenian pianist Assanetta Eguiserian, Gavrilov’s early years were filled with arts and music.
He first gained significant international attention by winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1975. The same year provided Gavrilov with another significant recognition when he had the opportunity to substitute Sviatoslav Richter at Salzburg Festival.
Till 1993, Gavrilov had a busy and successful career, performing hundreds of concerts each year and recording with labels. In 1993, he surprised everyone by deciding to take a break from his classical piano career due to the inability to preserve his true artistic self in the music industry.
Undoubtedly, Gavrilov is one of the most unique pianists that the classical music scene has ever seen.
21st Century Russian Pianists
It’s safe to say that the 3-time Grammy winner pianist is among the most famous pianists of the 21st century. His interpretations of romantic composers like Lizst, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Schubert has received international acclaim by the critics.
Kissin has given concerts all around the world and performed with the best symphonies. Kissin’s style is unique in that it is marked by his poetic, deep, and narrative approach to the interpretation of the pieces.
I remember first watching this performance of Kissin below when I was 14 years old. I got so obsessed with this performance that I watched it at least 5-times a day for a while though the situation was getting really unhealthy for me. Still, I couldn’t prevent myself because it was the most impressive performance I’d ever watched.
Little did I know that it was only one of the hundreds of performances that showed how a legendary pianist Kissin was.
Arcadi Volodos is quite unique among these other Russian concert pianists in that he started playing the piano quite late compared to other virtuosos.
Related: 5 Famous Pianists Who Started Late
Still, it didn’t stop him from becoming one of the best pianists of the 21st century, recording award-winning albums and performing worldwide.
The interpretation approach of Volodos can be defined as expressive, lyrical, creative, and passionate. All of these elements are combined with his exceptional piano technique, distinguishing Volodos from his contemporaries.
Born in Leningrad in 1950, Sokolov has been active in both the 20th and 21st-centuries as an acclaimed concert pianist, regularly touring and performing since 1966.
Sokolov has a vast repertoire, which ranges from Baroque to 20th-century composers.
One thing that sets Sokolov apart from many other pianists is that he is very interested in the mechanics of the piano, and he usually spends a lot of time adjusting its mechanism to reach the ideal sound he dreams of. For Sokolov, the musical ideas are tightly connected to the relationship between him and the piano as an instrument.
He’s among the finest and most respected pianists of all time.
This young 29-year old Russian pianist has taken the classical music world by storm since his first appearance in the International F. Chopin Competition for Young Pianists.
Described by Times as the most impressive pianist of the 21st century, Trifonov had already won a Grammy and many other prizes from prestigious competitions, and his albums ranked on Billboard Top Charts several times. It is safe to say that Daniil Trifonov is the rock star of classical music.
He recorded the solo piano pieces of Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Lizst so far, which all received significant acclaim and were awarded by the most prominent music institutions.
I’m really curious and excited about what this 29-year-old Russian virtuoso will accomplish in the following years.
The child piano prodigy Nikolai Lugansky had been already playing the Beethoven piano sonatas learned by ear before he learned how to read music.
When he was studying at the Moscow Conservatory, one of Lugansky’s teachers was Tatiana Nikolayeva.
Lugansky is most known for his elegant yet virtuosic interpretations of Russian romantic and late romantic composers. While Lugansky has a vast repertoire from all eras, its focus is mostly on composers like Rachmaninoff, Chopin, and Prokofiev.
Winner of many international and national prizes, Lugansky is among the most prominent Russian pianists.
Born into a musical family, Matsuev’s parents were both professional pianists, and they realized their child’s talent early on when Matsuev repeated the music on the piano he heard on TV at 3.
His fame and career took off after winning the 11th International Tchaikovsky Competition at 23, receiving invitations from the best symphonies in the world to perform with them. Matsuev has toured both the U.S. and Europe and performed at the best-known venues like Carnegie Hall in New York and Royal Festival Hall in London.
Matsuev’s repertoire extensively consists of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. He is also well versed in jazz music and occasionally gives jazz concerts, and mentioned that he was greatly influenced by Oscar Peterson.
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The Moscow-born pianist has gained a significant reputation when he won first place at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1990.
He is known to be the 21st century representative of the Russian classical piano tradition which emphasizes virtuosity. As a result, his repertoire focuses primarily on virtuosic classical composers: Rachmaninoff, Lizst, and Prokofiev.
Having won several competitions including the International Tchaikovsky Competition, Mikhail Pletnev is among the most celebrated Russian pianists of today. His exceptional talent led him to win a Grammy in 2005 for the Best Chamber Music Performance, which he shared with Marta Argerich.
Pletnev’s musical focus is mostly on Russian composers, and he is known to have a special interest in Tchaikovsky’s music. Pletnev recognizes Rachmaninoff as the most influential musician to form his style and artistry.
After founding the Russian National Orchestra in 1990, he became less present as a classical pianist and more active as a conductor in the public, recording Tchaikovsky’s and Rachmaninoff’s orchestra works with Deutsche Grammaphon.
Demonstrating child prodigy skills from an early age, Alexander Malofeev is 19 years old yet (as of 2020), though he already established his reputation as one of the most prominent pianists of the 21st century.
He gained notable recognition after winning the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in 2014. Malofeev received critical acclaim not only for his exceptional virtuoso skills but also for the maturity and depth of his interpretations, which even some of the most renowned pianists can’t reach.
As a very young Russian pianist, Alexander Malofeev has already proven to be a promising artist. We will probably hear this brilliant young pianist’s name more often in the following years since his fame seems to be only rising.
These wonderful musicians are the most famous Russian pianists of all time, though it is likely that I haven’t covered all of the famous Russian piano players.
Is there any pianist that I missed? Who is your favorite Russian pianist among them?
Let me know in the comments below!