12 of the most iconic American pianists

23 May 2022
By Guest Writer
Van Cliburn, Earl Wild, Richard Goode: the United States has a long tradition of great pianists. Harriet Smith picks out 12 leading American players and spotlights past legends

This article is taken from Pianist 71

by Harriet Smith



How do you go about deciphering the term ‘American pianist’?

Is it a question of birthplace? Or is it enough merely to have been based there for a period of time? We decided to firmly rule out those who’d been born in the United States but lived elsewhere, so out went such luminaries as Stephen Kovacevich and Murray Perahia.

As for living there, that seemed somewhat vague, so we agreed that only those who’d assumed American citizenship were up for consideration. The scope for such a survey is as huge and varied as the country itself, so what follows is an unashamedly personal take on those who’ve shaped the American pianistic landscape in one way or another. The USA is a notoriously difficult country for any artist to conquer. It’s not simply a case of size, though that plays a part, but its vast cultural and stylistic diversity.



1. Van Cliburn (1934 – 2013)

©The Cliburn

The natural place to begin is with the poster-boy who is still the only pianist ever to have enjoyed a ticker-tape parade in New York. For what could be more delicious than an American snatching the main prize at the first ever Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow – an event set up less for elevated cultural reasons than political ones, to showcase the might of the Soviets in all walks of life at the height of the Cold War.

That was the fairy tale that launched the career of the 23-year-old Van Cliburn in 1958. It was a career that was to be played out in the brightest of spotlights for the following 20 years before a pause in 1978 that was initially intended to last a year or so and stretched for nearly a decade. Fittingly, it was an invitation to the White House in 1987 to play for visiting Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev that brought him back to the public.

But Cliburn, who passed away in 2013, was far more than simply a symbol of East-West accord: he combined an innate virtuosity with a songfulness that is particularly captivating in the Russian Romantics, be it Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto and the Second Sonata or Tchaikovsky’s First. Not to mention that a prestigious international piano competition (and amateur piano competition) was named after him.

Van Cliburn stars on the cover of Pianist 126 – an American special issue.



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2. Rudolf Serkin (1903 – 1991)

©Bilsen/Joop van Anefo

If the Texan Van Cliburn is the ultimate all-American boy, the musical landscape of the past century has been formed as much by incomers – often forced onto American soil by the privations of war – as natives of the country.

Though he died in 1991, Rudolf Serkin is a figure that crops up time and again within the formative biographies of our top 10. Serkin taught generations of artists at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he held the post of director for eight years. Born into a Russian-Jewish family in Bohemia in 1903, Serkin was educated in Vienna before moving to Berlin. With the rise of Hitler he fled to America in 1939 with violinist Adolf Busch, his musical partner and father-in-law.

Serkin and Busch founded the famous Marlboro Festival in Vermont, which has long played a key role as a place where the next generation of great artists is nurtured, young rubbing shoulders with established artists in the most idyllic and informal of settings, a sanctuary – more precious than ever today – from the rigours of concert life.



3. Richard Goode (b. 1943)

©Steve Riskind

Today, Marlboro flourishes under the shared leadership of Mitsuko Uchida and Richard Goode, one of the artists who benefited from Serkin’s teaching. Born 1943 in New York City, Goode studied with Mieczysław Horszowski at the Curtis Institute, which he attended after Mannes College where his teachers included Claude Frank and Nadia Reisenberg.

Though Goode found success at the 1973 Clara Haskil Competition, his career has been a gradual crescendo rather than one of youthful dazzle. That seems utterly suited both to his personality and to the repertoire he performs. Beethoven has formed a backbone to his activities, and his sonata cycle from the early 1990s remains a benchmark for its insight and joie de vivre. He is as much a chamber musician as a soloist and it says much about him that most of his partnerships are longstanding ones, be they with clarinettist Richard Stoltzman or soprano Dawn Upshaw.



4. Emmanuel Ax (b. 1949)

©Lisa Marie Mazzucco

Emanuel Ax, six years Goode’s junior, reached New York via Lviv (then in Poland, now in Ukraine), Warsaw and Winnipeg. By the time he was 12 he was enrolled at the Juilliard School under the tuition of Mieczysław Munz, and in 1970 he became an American citizen. Like Goode, he met with success in the Young Concert Artists Auditions and initially established his reputation as an outstanding chamber musician – especially acclaimed for his partnership with Yo-Yo Ma.

His quartet with Isaac Stern and Jaime Laredo also brought further recognition as well as a slew of major recordings of the piano quartets of Mozart, Fauré, Schumann and Brahms. As a soloist his career has built and built and he delights in embracing the modern as well as the central repertoire.



5. Yefim Bronfman (b. 1958)

Yefim Bronfman shares qualities with both Goode and Ax. Like Ax, he was born outside America, in Tashkent in 1958. His family then immigrated to Israel when he was 15. He became an American citizen at the age of 31, having studied at that great triumvirate: Juilliard, Curtis and Marlboro.

His teachers included the great and the good: Rudolf Serkin, Leon Fleisher and Rudolf Firkušný.

Like Ax, he performed regularly with Isaac Stern, and as a soloist, he has produced classic accounts of the Bartók concertos (with Esa-Pekka Salonen) and Prokofiev’s sonatas and concertos (with Zubin Mehta). He has even made it into the pages of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, with the narrator quipping that Bronfman looks ‘less like the person who is going to play the piano than like the guy who should be moving it.’ The proof is in his performances, however!



6. Leon Fleisher (1928-2020)

©Joanne Savio

Leon Fleisher, the only West Coaster among our ten, hailed from San Francisco. Fleisher played a huge role in the more recent history of America and the piano. His prodigious gifts displayed themselves early, with Pierre Monteux, no less, declaring him ‘the pianistic find of the century’ when Fleisher was just 16. This came as no surprise to his erstwhile teacher, one Artur Schnabel who, along with Maria Curcio, had guided the young artist, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that Fleisher excelled in some of the same repertoire, no more compellingly than the Brahms concertos, in which delicacy and strength are held in perfect accord.

Many lesser artists would have been felled by the mysterious injury in the mid-1960s that led to Fleisher losing the use of his right hand for several decades (the injury was later diagnosed as focal dystonia). But he picked up the pieces, performing left-hand-only repertoire and forging a reputation as a pedagogue.



7. Gary Graffman (b. 1928)

Gary Graffman was born in New York City in 1928 just three months after Fleisher. He studied at Curtis (with Isabelle Vengerova), making his debut with the Philadelphia under Eugene Ormandy. His gifts were further honed by the contrasting experiences of Serkin and Marlboro and informal lessons with Vladimir Horowitz.

He enjoyed a longstanding friendship with Fleisher, and the two keyboard giants are also linked in a more unfortunate way, for Graffman also injured his right hand. What started out as a simple sprain in 1977 developed into the same disastrous focal dystonia. Like Fleisher, he worked round the problem, exploring other interests, which ranged from writing via photography to Oriental art, and teaching (he joined Curtis in 1980). He continued to perform, notably giving the belated British premiere of Korngold’s left-hand concerto.

But Graffman went further, commissioning new works, notably by Ned Rorem and William Bolcom, the latter writing a double concerto for piano left-hand specifically for Graffman and Fleisher. Like Fleisher, he has been a major influence on the next generation through his teaching, with Yuja Wang, Lydia Artymiw and Lang Lang among his former students.



8. Byron Janis (b. 1928)

©S. Hurok

1928 was indeed a very good year for American pianists – for Fleisher, Graffmann and Byron Janis were all born then. The connections don’t stop there. Like Graffman and Fleisher, Janis has had hand problems, though in his case it has been crippling arthritis, which began when he was in his forties.

Like Graffman he studied with Horowitz, following a period at the Juilliard where he was a student of the legendary Rosina Lhévinne – by no means the only pianist in our 10 to have been. And, like Fleisher, nurturing the next generation and beyond has long been a major preoccupation. Of all composers, Janis is perhaps most closely associated with Chopin (and while in France in 1967 he happened upon the manuscripts of two unknown Chopin waltzes). What makes his relationship with the Pole so special is a classicism of approach, seemingly boundless technique and a probing intelligence. But he’s just as compelling in figures as contrasted as Liszt, Schumann and Prokofiev.



9. André Previn (1929 – 2019)

©Bert Verhoeff/Anefo

America has long represented a melting pot of musical styles, one where so-called high and low art aren’t afraid to mingle (consider the teenage George Gershwin plugging songs in Tin Pan Alley). No one exemplifies the glories of that melding and mixing better than André Previn, who achieved a prodigious amount in a dizzying range of fields.

Born in Berlin, he’d moved to Los Angeles by his tenth birthday, acquiring American citizenship in 1943. He began his career (still in his teens) as an arranger and composer of film scores for Hollywood; he also found time to take conducting lessons with Pierre Monteux at around the same time that the Frenchman was extolling the genius of Leon Fleisher (even in such a vast country, it’s striking how often the narratives of these individuals overlap). Previn was by this time equally acclaimed as a jazz pianist. There followed an extraordinary three-way career as composer, pianist and conductor, seemingly without frontiers in terms of genre, even if his name will equally potently forever be linked (at least to Brits) with the Morecambe and Wise television show of the 1970s.



10. Ursula Oppens (b. 1944)

Another pianist for whom boundaries are there to be crossed is New Yorker Ursula, who was among the vanguard when it came to adventurous programming: Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ in the company of Boulez’s Second Sonata, for instance.

An alumnus of Juilliard, where she studied with the legendary Rosina Lhévinne, Oppens won the Busoni Competition in 1969 but didn’t take the easy route from there. Instead, she set up a new music group with percussionist Richard Fitz and cellist Fred Sherry.

Since then, she has been active both as a chamber musician and soloist (even going as far as attending improvisation classes when the music demanded it). The roster of composers who have written for her speaks for itself – Anthony Davis, John Harbison, György Ligeti, Witold Lutoslawski, Conlon Nancarrow, Tobias Picker, Frederic Rzewski, Joan Tower and Charles Wuorinen – and, most famously Elliott Carter, whose now-classic Night Fantasies was the result of an unusual four-way commission from her and Paul Jacobs, Gilbert Kalish and Charles Rosen.



11. Garrick Ohlsson (b. 1948)

©Dario Acosta

Four years’ Oppens’ junior, Garrick Ohlsson also studied at the Juilliard with Rosina Lhévinne, though she was but one teacher among quite a roster: Claudio Arrau, Olga Barabini, Tom Lishman, Sasha Gorodnitzki and Irma Wolpe. Like her, he won the Busoni Competition (in 1966, at which one Richard Goode was placed second).

But the door-opener, career-wise, for Ohlsson was the 1970 Chopin Competition. He was the first American winner in an era where major competitions were fewer and consequently higher profile. It’s not surprising that he has since been closely linked with Chopin’s music, which he has recorded authoritatively. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg: he has a staggering range of repertoire at his fingertips, including over 80 concertos. He’s one of the few pianists to have mastered the Busoni Concerto, is a Brahmsian of great panache and his Weber piano sonatas (still repertoire that is oddly underrated) are a delight.



12. Jonathan Biss (b. 1980)

©Benjamin Ealovega

At only 41 years old, Jonathan Biss could also be added into this group of stellar pianists. Born into a musical family, he’s a former student of Fleisher at the Curtis Institute and first made his name as a chamber musician, honing his art at Marlboro and Ravinia. He’s also proving himself to be the latest in the line of the great thinker-pianists such as Goode and Charles Rosen – and so continues a great pianistic intellectual tradition.

Jonathan Biss graced the cover of Pianist 71.


About the author

Harriet Smith is a writer for numerous publications. She has previously written for multiple issues of Pianist including issue 68 and issue 76. She has also written extensively for Gramophone.