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The 25 best Canadian classical pianists
By
Editorial Staff

Published

January 1, 2015

Genre

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Written and compiled by Denise BallMatthew Parsons and Robert Rowat

In Canada, we punch well above our weight, piano-wise. When we started compiling this list of the 25 greatest Canadian classical pianists, we thought that maybe we’d highlight 10 of the best pianists this country has ever produced. But within minutes, we discovered that 10 slots was nowhere near enough. Our list grew to 15, to 20, and finally to a nice, round 25. And we totally could have kept going.

The musicians in the list below have made dozens of classic recordings. They’ve astonished audiences in Canada and abroad, and they’ve proven themselves in a variety of musical settings: solo recitals; concerto programs; chamber music. Their repertoire ranges from the core classics of Beethoven and Bach, to contemporary Canadian music, to stuff that nobody would ever have heard if these pianists hadn’t dug it up.

Frankly, even if we had a slightly less culturally ubiquitous number one, this would still be a pretty astonishing list.

25. Mario Bernardi

You probably know him as one of Canada's most eminent conductors — founder of the National Arts Centre Orchestra, longtime music director of the CBC Radio Orchestra — but Mario Bernardi had a pretty substantial piano career, too. Look no further than his recordings with Canadian violinist Steven Staryk for proof that Bernardi's talents extended well beyond the podium. — Matthew Parsons

Essential recording: Prokofiev: Violin Sonatas (Centaur)

Mario Bernardi.

24. Eve Egoyan

Classical music ought to have a sense of adventure, and Eve Egoyan certainly does. One of this country’s most respected contemporary music interpreters, Egoyan is willing to take on anything, from improvisation to electronics to whatever the next crazy thing may be. And not only that: she can also make lovely music at the piano. That’s crucial. — M.P.

Essential recording: Southam: Simple Lines of Enquiry (Centrediscs)

Eve Egoyan.

23. Valerie Tryon

Over the course of her 50-plus-year career, Valerie Tryon has amassed a discography that’s astonishing in both size and variety. She’s recorded pretty much everything by Chopin and Debussy, and a quite impressive chunk of Liszt’s oeuvre as well. Her repertoire extends back to Scarlatti, and outwards to Busoni and the Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott. Seemingly, there is nobody she hasn’t played. — M.P.

Essential recording: Chopin: Scherzos & Ballades (CBC Records)

Valerie Tryon.

22. Michael McMahon

The ne plus ultra of collaborative pianists, Michael McMahon attracts top vocal recitalists not only because of his skills at the keyboard, but also due to his deep knowledge of repertoire, languages and performance style. He has been central to the careers of soprano Karina Gauvin, mezzo-soprano Catherine Robbin, contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux and bass-baritone Philippe Sly. — Robert Rowat

Essential recording: Schumann: Liederkreis (CBC Records)

Michael McMahon.

21. Robert Silverman

He’s the dean of Canadian pianists, a highly respected pedagogue and performer of rare insight with an extensive discography — more than 30 CDs and a dozen LPs including the complete sonata cycles of Beethoven and Mozart — and an unquenchable musical curiosity. Born in Montreal, Robert Silverman made his debut with the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal at the tender age of 14 and never looked back. He spent 30 years teaching at UBC and today maintains a staggering schedule of recording and concert performances. —Denise Ball

Essential recording: Brahms: Piano Music, volume 1 (CBC Records)

Robert Silverman.

20. William Aide

Glenn Gould called him one of "the most inventive and imaginative pianistic talents of our time." He’s been described as a "genius, a sorcerer, a creator of sonic perfume." He’s a collaborative pianist in great demand, not to mention a highly regarded poet. Born in Timmins, Ont., Aide has played concerts around the world and nurtured a generation of aspiring musicians at the University of Toronto. Along the way, he’s also been a big champion of Canadian music, performing at least 30 premieres, including five piano concertos. — D.B.

Essential recording: Chopin: Etudes (CBC Records)

William Aide.

19. Jane Coop

Jane Coop flew out of the gate with a series of wins at big international competitions before she was barely 20. Since then she’s been a beloved teacher at the University of British Columbia, a collaborative pianist of rare sensitivity, a powerful interpreter of contemporary concerto repertoire and one of the most thoughtful and articulate pianists in Canada.  — D.B.

Essential recording: The Romantic Piano, volume 1 (Skylark)

Jane Coop.

18. Louise Bessette

It takes a pianist of some distinction to play the music of Olivier Messiaen well — and Louise Bessette’s Messiaen performances are as powerful as anybody’s. Her performances of challenging works like Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus have living composers scrambling to write music for her. — M.P.

Essential recording: Messiaen: Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (ATMA)

Louise Bessette.

17. Alain Lefèvre

Among the top-selling classical artists in Canada, Alain Lefèvre spent his formative years in Paris, where he continues to concertize. He has championed the music of 20th-century Quebec composer André Mathieu to wide acclaim and was interviewed by Charlie Rose about it. Lefèvre is especially drawn to music that suits his romantic and effusive personality: Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Liszt.  — R.R.

Essential recording: Mathieu, Gershwin, Rachmaninov: Rhapsodies (Analekta)

Alain Lefèvre.

16. Marek Jablonski

Jablonski, who died in 1999 at the age of 59, was a mercurial performer with a particular flair for Chopin. Born in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1939, Jablonski grew up in Edmonton before launching an international career. He later became an influential teacher and a mentor to a generation of outstanding Canadian pianists. This is a pianist with the soul of a poet. —D.B.

Essential recording: Chopin (CBC Records, out of print)

Marek Jablonski.

15. Christina Petrowska-Quilico

Contemporary music demands a particularly extraordinary sort of musician: one who can meet the ever-mounting technical demands imposed by today’s composers, and who is willing to try things that have never been done before. Christina Petrowska-Quilico is one of those musicians — possibly the most respected one in Canada. Many of the greatest Canadian composers of recent times — Ann Southam, Violet Archer, John Weinzweig — have Petrowska-Quilico to thank for bringing their music to our ears. — M.P.

Essential recording: Southam: Glass Houses Revisited (Centrediscs)

Christina Petrowska-Quilico.

14. David Jalbert

If David Jalbert isn’t a household name, it’s because he conducts his career entirely on his own terms. He plays with intelligence and exquisite taste and chooses repertoire about which he has something new and significant to say, whether it’s Fauré’s Nocturnes, Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, or chamber music by Poulenc, Ives and Rachmaninoff. — R.R.

Essential recording: Shostakovich: Preludes and Fugues (ATMA)

David Jalbert.

13. Stewart Goodyear

When Stewart Goodyear played all 32 piano sonatas by Beethoven in a single day at Toronto’s 2012 Luminato Festival, we started to wonder if there’s anything he can’t do. He brings "phenomenal technique, poise and attention to detail" to wide-ranging repertoire and has also made a name for himself as a composer. — R.R.

Essential recording: Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas (Marquis)

Stewart Goodyear.

12. Jamie Parker

Best known for his work with Gryphon Trio, Jamie Parker is your man if you need a great pianist with a can-do attitude. Whether he’s giving a piano six-hands concert with his brother Jackie and cousin Ian, or playing in the orchestra pit for the video game musical Zelda, he’s up for the challenge. Also, aspiring pianists are flocking in droves to his studio at the University of Toronto. — R.R.

Essential recording: Mendelssohn, Lalo: Piano Trios (Analekta)

Jamie Parker.

11. Jan Lisiecki

At 19 years old, Jan Lisiecki ought not to be anywhere close to a list like this. And yet, he’s already established himself as one of Canada’s foremost musical exports. Lisiecki is no ordinary prodigy: his playing is as refined and expressive as some pro musicians twice his age. As of 2015, we’re slotting him in at a respectable number 11. Let’s reconvene in 2020 and see whether anybody alive can touch him. — M.P.

Essential recording: Mozart: Concertos (Deutsche Grammophon)

Jan Lisiecki has been described by the New York Times as "a pianist who makes every note count."

10. André Laplante

To witness a performance by André Laplante is to be transported back to the days of Chopin and Liszt, when concert pianists were greeted by the public as rock stars. Passionate, intense, mercurial — his playing never fails to excite. He takes risks; it pays off. While Laplante excels at virtuosic solo repertoire, he also makes a rock-solid chamber musician. — R.R.

Essential recording: Liszt: Années de pèlerinage — Suisse (Analekta)

André Laplante.

9. Arthur Ozolins

Arthur Ozolins burst onto the Canadian classical music scene in the early 1960s. The Latvian-born virtuoso, who arrived in Toronto via Argentina in 1958, came with dazzling technique and genuine charisma. He’s appeared with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra more than 50 times and won Canada’s first Juno Award for best classical recording. He built an international fan club thanks to concerts with leading orchestras all over the world. — D.B.

Essential recording: Rachmaninov, Willan: Piano Concertos (CBC Records)

8. Angela Cheng

Since winning first prize at the 1988 Montreal International Music Competition — she was the first Canadian to do so — Angela Cheng has led a distinguished career as a recitalist, concerto soloist, teacher and recording artist. Known especially for her Mozart, which glows, she’s also got the chops to dazzle in flashier works by Shostakovich and Chopin. — R.R.

Essential recording: The Overcoat: Music of Dmitri Shostakovich (CBC Records)

Angela Cheng.

7. Jon Kimura Parker

Since his auspicious debut with the Vancouver Youth Orchestra at age five, Jon Kimura Parker has been going from strength to strength. These past two years have been especially good to him. His 2013 recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring — in his own transcription — stands as one of the greatest piano performances of that work. This year’s followup disc, Fantasy, earned similarly effusive reviews. Parker’s so hot right now that even the Police’s Stewart Copeland had to work with him, and that is a frankly astonishing pairing that we’re anxious to hear more from. — M.P.

Essential recording: Rite (Hawkes & Sons)

Read on for Jon Kimura Parker's thoughts on his favourite piano music ever.

6. Louis Lortie

One of Canada’s most internationally recognized pianists, Louis Lortie can seemingly do anything. He cemented his reputation with brilliant recordings of Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven. In the last decade, he’s branched out to record works by Gershwin, Lutoslawski and Szymanowski. He even took up conducting for a recording of Mendelssohn concertos with the Orchestre symphonique de Québec. And he’s managed to fit it all into a busy schedule of international touring. — M.P.

Essential recording: Chopin: 24 Preludes (Chandos)

Louis Lortie.

5. Janina Fialkowska

The great pianist Arthur Rubinstein once referred to Janina Fialkowska as "a born Chopin interpreter." There is no more valuable endorsement in the piano world. Far from a one-trick pony, Fialkowska has put her talents to the service of a wide variety of music, from Mozart to Mozetich. She’s been well received in concerts all over the world, and her recordings — especially those of Chopin and Liszt — are widely regarded as top-shelf material. — M.P. 

Essential recording: Chopin: Piano Concertos (ATMA)

4. Anton Kuerti

Kuerti has done more than almost anybody to enrich musical life in Canada. Aside from his famous performances in small communities that don’t often attract such high-profile artists, he has also founded, curated and directed an impressive range of classical music festivals and concert series. With all of those extra-curriculars, it’s hard to imagine how he ever had time to produce his vast body of excellent recordings. — M.P.

Essential recording: Beethoven: The Complete Sonatas and Diabelli Variations (Analekta)

Anton Kuerti.

3. Angela Hewitt

Nobody plays Bach like Hewitt. Throughout the late '90s and early '00s, she recorded all of Bach’s keyboard music, which is a miraculous accomplishment in itself. Those recordings became instant Bach benchmarks, ensuring Hewitt’s place among the greatest musicians of our time. Plus, once you’ve been through all of the Bach, there’s the Beethoven. And the Mozart. And the Messiaen. — M.P. 

Essential recording: Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier (Hyperion)

2. Marc-André Hamelin

Nothing compares to the thrill of hearing a true virtuoso play music that seems impossible without breaking a sweat. Marc-André Hamelin might be the most technically astonishing pianist alive. While it would be easy to characterize him as Canadian piano music’s stuntman-in-residence, there’s far more to Hamelin than flash. He absolutely shines on his Haydn recordings — among the best in recent memory. Plus, he’s a tireless champion of lesser-known repertoire by composers like Rzewski and Busoni. His recording of works by the latter earned him a well deserved Echo Klassik Award in October, for instrumentalist of the year. — M.P.

Essential recording: Godowsky: The Complete Studies on Chopin's Etudes (Hyperion)

1. Glenn Gould

Some orthodoxies just aren’t worth challenging. Of courseGlenn Gould is the greatest Canadian classical pianist ever. Why? Because just listen to him.

There’s a good reason why Gould’s reputation extends so far outside of the classical music bubble: he was every bit as unique and iconoclastic as the composers he performed. For better or worse, you know when you’re listening to Gould. And regardless of whether you’re turned off by his interminable humming or his idiosyncratic take on Mozart, every one of Gould’s recordings justifies its existence by being completely unlike everything else out there. And in a genre where all of the bands play the same tunes, that is a remarkable feat. —M.P.

Essential recording: Bach: The Complete Goldberg Variations (Sony)

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