Alfred Brendel retired last month. I’ve known Mr Brendel for many years. OK, not Mr Brendel, exactly: I’ve known his music; he’s one of my favourite classical pianists, especially for Mozart and Beethoven. Some of the first classical recordings I ever bought (on LP) were of Mr Brendel’s playing, Mozart concertos and Beethoven sonatas. And now I have CDs of his complete sets of the Mozart concertos and of the Beethoven concertos and sonatas.
To fit with that, his last concert before his retirement was in Vienna in December, where he played Mozart.
The news of Alfred Brendel’s retirement, which he announced about a year ago, but which I only heard after his final concert, got me thinking about my other favourite classical pianists. The powerhouses of the older years are in my collection, of course: Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolph Serkin, Sviatoslav Richter, Claudio Arrau — all dead for some time now. Van Cliburn and Vladimir Ashkenazy are still around, and the latter, at least, is still active, mostly conducting now. I’ve always loved Mr Ashkenazy’s performances of the Russian masters, particularly Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, and his old recording with Itzhak Perlman of the Prokofiev violin sonatas is, to my ear, the best made.
But, really, for classical piano I mostly prefer the ladies. I think it’s the gentler touch — though no one who hears Martha Argerich’s performance of Prokofiev’s 3rd concerto would ever accuse her of touching the keyboard too gently. Prokofiev wrote a percussive piece, and Ms Argerich played it perfectly — and I realize that she was still in her 20s when she made the recording that I have (coupled with an equally marvellous version of Tchaikovsky’s first concerto).
For women with the lighter touch, there are Mitsuko Uchida — wonderful with the Mozart sonatas — and Cristina Ortiz (the recordings I have of her all seem to be unavailable now).
Finally, youngest of the bunch in my list, Hélène Grimaud, who I’ve really enjoyed for Chopin, Brahms, Ravel, and Schumann. Lots of good recording of hers are out there; try this, and this as fine samples.
Who are the bright, young piano stars of today? I haven’t looked for or bought new classical recordings in some years, and it seems that these days it’s the violinists who get the press. But the Tchaikovsky and Van Cliburn competitions are still going, as is the William Kapell competition at University of Maryland. I guess there’s a new crop out there I should give a listen to.