The artists' artist: Pianists

In the first of a new series of weekly columns, leading pianists choose their favourite performer of all time

In the first of a new series of weekly columns, leading pianists choose their favourite performer of all time. Coming up: playwrights and lead vocalists.

Stephen Hough

I've loved Alfred Cortot's playing from an early age and I never tire of hearing his recordings, particularly Chopin and Schumann from the 1920s and 30s. He is unique in his combination of utter interpretative freedom (sometimes with a touch of eccentricity) and penetrating insight into a composer's wishes. There are artists who delight listeners with their wild and daring individuality; there are others who uncover the written score with reverence; there are few who can do both. Cortot had a vision which went beyond the academic or the theatrical to some wider horizon of creativity from whence the composers themselves might well have drawn inspiration. In the shifting, kaleidoscopic moods of Schumann's cycles, or the lyrical outpouring of Chopin's Preludes, Etudes and Ballades, Cortot seems to breathe with the composer. It is not a mere dusting off or polishing up of a pre-written work, but an interpreter giving the kiss of life to a dead form – vivifying and intimate.

Cortot is sometimes referred to as the pianist who played lots of wrong notes. This is unfair, not just because he had a dazzling finger technique, but because he never allowed a striving for accuracy to distract him from the bigger picture. You can sometimes hear his mistakes, even in the first notes of pieces, but I find these fallible moments endearing: the pianist consumed by spiritual inspiration, oblivious of the physical risks involved.

Leif Ove Andsnes

I've grown up with Dinu Lipatti's playing and gradually discovered how unbelievable he was. He was the complete pianist, and his early death [in 1950, aged 33] was a terrible loss. When you hear a truly great performance, there is often an air of the inevitable about it: the music shines through. He was an enormous personality, but his playing is not all about him.

I've tried to analyse some of his performances and realise that his playing is never the same, from one recording to another. Lipatti wrote that when you practise, you must be careful about injecting any sentiment into a piece: rehearsed time and again, it becomes mannered and contrived.

Because of his natural sound, people don't often talk of his technique, but his mastery is incredible. He can play a challenging piece such as Ravel's Alborada del Gracioso so effortlessly that I'm considering studying a recording by him and trying to copy it. People say copying erases your personality; but if it's something you admire, it makes sense to try to inject it into your own work. After all, grand masters such as Rembrandt copied.

Angela Hewitt

Twenty years ago, somebody gave me Alfred Cortot's 1930s recording of Chopin's Preludes and Impromptus. I had never heard anything like it. There is such an eloquence in the phrasing, an unaffected freedom in the rhythm – and he did it with such economy of movement. It's impossible to imitate; one can just marvel at it. His beautiful sound was probably helped by the pianos of the time, which were less harsh and more distinctive; but he had, in addition, an elegance and charm that is increasingly rare in modern life. 

My piano teacher's piano teacher worked with Cortot, and he introduced me to Cortot's editions of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt. These days, the tendency is to return to the basic notes of the ur-text: it's somewhat frowned upon to use editions containing personal interpretative ideas – a shame, because we lose out on many important performance traditions. Cortot's writings were full not just of technical ideas and exercises, but of inspired suggestions as to what exactly was going on in the music, literary connotations and other insights. Cortot helped me realise how free you can be.

Vladimir Ashkenazy

Rachmaninov was a head above all his contemporaries, because he was a composer as well as a pianist: he understood all the elements of music. His interpretations were intelligent, whereas others' merely sounded attractive. Then there are musicians such as Emil Gilels, Rudolf Serkin, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli – all of them with incredible gifts. Their greatness has nothing to do with brilliance, but with their understanding of what the composer was trying to say. No one could surpass Glenn Gould's interpretation of Bach's Goldberg Variations; and it's impossible to imagine anyone playing Rachmaninov better than Van Cliburn. I'm also still learning from the younger generation, such as Evgeny Kissin. Modern musicians have the advantage of a wealth of recordings, which has enabled them to learn from a century of diverse styles and interpretions. It's a privilege the musicians of the 1920s and 1930s lacked, and can only enrich music in the future.

Freddy Kempf

Vladmir Horowitz has been the one constant inspiration. Even now, before I play something, I try to imagine how he would do it. Of all the recorded pianists, he has the widest range of colour, tone and dynamic. He employs every possible type of sound to create a mood or an emotion. More practically, he possessed a quality that hadn't been part of my musical studies in England: his recordings introduced me to works such as Shostokovich's Preludes and Scriabin's Etudes. His technique was highly individual: he kept his wrists low, below the keyboard, his hands flat, his fingers straight and he barely moved his body; yet through this stillness he could produce the most extraordinary explosions of sound. When you listen to his transcription of The Stars and Stripes Forever, it's hard to believe that it's one pianist playing by himself. In my teens he was a good and bad influence: bad, because I tried to copy things that were beyond me and so exaggerated my own faults. The human mind tends to set up as an idol someone who highlights their own lack of ability, rather than someone who reflects themselves; Horowitz seemed to embody everything I couldn't do.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Aloys Kontarsky: his collaboration with Karlheinz Stockhausen allowed the Klavierstücke, that monumental postwar set of piano pieces, to be interpreted and recorded with sparkling vitality. The duo Kontarsky formed with his brother Alfons created a new repertoire of intense richness that might otherwise have been neglected. His teaching at the Hochschule in Cologne has enabled younger generations to absorb musical expertise directly from a witness to another era – a rare gift. An artist like Kontarsky is far from a musical world which increasingly tilts towards the sensational, the demagogic and the populist.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet

I heard Arthur Rubinstein perform live when I was seven. Afterwards, I met him backstage and sat on his lap for 15 minutes, and he was so sweet, gentle and grandfatherly; he was sweet and grandfatherly. When he asked what career I planned, I told him I wanted to be a famous pianist and he gave me a piece of advice I have never forgotten: the most important thing is to remember the audience, to treat them well and always make yourself available.

I remember when I was young going backstage and asking for the autograph of performers and being refused. Now, I make sure I welcome anyone who comes to see me after a concert. It's like a reward to hear their opinion of a performance.

Later, when I listened to Rubinstein's recordings and watched his television interviews, he became a sort of idol. The way he plays Chopin is so fresh, almost as if he's improvising. He sits down, closes his eyes and, although he must have played the piece 120 times, it's as though he's just conjured it up. His performances reflect this infectious joie de vivre. He loved music, food, smoking, birds, life: if you watch him at the keyboard, you can see he's enjoying every note he plays.

Artists are the most privileged people in the world, because we are paid to do what we love; Rubinstein recognised his life was a blessing. Now, if I am about to play Chopin, I listen to his recordings and am then moved to leap to the piano and start to play – in my own way, but energised by him.


Interviews by Anna Tims

The GuardianTramp

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