Needless to say, I was slightly taken aback by his response but managed to maintain my composure. We then discussed how subjective it would be to judge who was the best in any of the creative and performing arts. When we began to discuss the "best" male vocalists on the radio today, he began to understand the issue a little more clearly. While some lists may include artists like Adam Levine and Alan Jackson, others may include Garth Brooks and Barry Manilow while excluding the others. The decision would be based entirely on one person's definition of "best".
So how do we answer this question? In this situation, the student and I explored Harold C. Schonberg's work The Great Pianists: For Mozart to the Present and used it as a launching pad to examine important pianists of the past. While he was fascinated by the accounts of Mozart, Chopin, and Liszt, he was most interested in those who he could easily hear and revised the question: Who do you personally consider five of the greatest pianists (living or dead) who can be heard on recording.
Here are the artists that I provided as my answer (in no particular order). Numerous other pianists could be mentioned without much justification needed as well.
- Vladimir Horowitz
- Glenn Gould
- Jean-Yves Thibaudet
- Sergei Rachmaninoff
- Alicia de Larrocha