Piano's new superstars hit the wrong notes – and gloriously

At last, says Jessica Duchen, the robotic sterility of recitals is being swept away by young artists for whom personality is as important than accuracy

The piano recital might just qualify for inclusion in some future Harry Potter sequel – as a musical phoenix. Just when you begin to think that the genre is well and truly passé, along comes a whole new generation of musicians who make us thrill to the instrument all over again.

Piano stardom is a cult of the individual, by necessity, and has been for nearly 200 years. Ever since 2011's bicentenary boy Franz Liszt set out to become the Paganini of the piano, and was so successful that women would break into his hotel to steal the water he washed in, the star pianist has held a unique place in public consciousness. Mythologies build around pianists as around few other instrumentalists – whether Vladimir Horowitz or Liberace, Lang Lang or David Helfgott, who was immortalised in the movie Shine.

The past year has witnessed the rise and rise of James Rhodes, 35, rebel pianist, self-confessed former druggie and image-busting iconoclast. Sold, too, on his sheer affection for the music he plays, he has been signed to Warner Bros records, the mainstream pop label rather than its classical counterpart. Then there's the perennial public fascination for Glenn Gould (1932-1982), who shunned the concert platform and made his strongest musical statements in the recording studio, notably in Bach. A recent documentary, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (2009) explores facets of the Canadian pianist's life that have rarely been probed publicly before – notably his love-life.

The Rhodes phenomenon is especially striking because, compared to today's giants of the concert hall, he's not one of the best. Much has been made of his back-story – drugs, psychiatric treatment, recovery thanks to music. He looks appealingly wild and woolly, and prefers to perform in a T-shirt rather than a tail suit. His performances, though, would probably see him kicked out in the first round of any international piano competition. But – and here's the rub – is that, perhaps, exactly why he is so popular? The notes, after all, are not where the truth in music lies. Music is in the communication between the notes. And Rhodes, however many wrong notes he hits, does communicate, and with tremendous love and enthusiasm for his music. He is the perfect antidote to the great problem of the modern concert pianist, which is that many are perceived as playing like robots.

If piano stardom is a cult of the individual, then pianists should have at least a little individuality. Yet often it sounds as if some of them are undertaking an impersonal quest for technical merit and career glory, but with little to offer by way of fresh, genuine musical response, let alone passion. These players often win competitions, since their playing does not polarise opinion and can garner the requisite number of "points" from across the spectrum of opinions. The wrong person sometimes wins, and for the wrong reason. Therefore we are growing to distrust competitions, their winners and the careers of those winners. How refreshing to hear Rhodes instead: someone who plays wrong notes, yet loves his music and loves to bring it to an audience he likes.

Meanwhile, Glenn Gould is the ever-resurgent Elvis of the piano. If any pianist has entered the popular mythology of music, it is this Canadian classic crazy genius whose reputation, since his death in 1982, has only grown. Gould rose to fame in the 1950s, his concerts creating a tremendous buzz of excitement wherever he went. In 1957 he toured Russia. At his Moscow recital the hall was only half full at first, but after the interval it was packed out: those present had spent the interval telling their friends and family to drop everything and run to hear the rest. That alone would probably have been enough to ensure Gould's reputation, but there was much more: he elected to retire from the concert platform aged only 32, and instead concentrated his artistry in the recording studio, where he could achieve results closer to his ideals than could be possible in a live concert.

Gould's recordings – and his hyper-intelligence, apparently reclusive tendencies and over-the-top hypochondria, amongst other qualities – have never ceased to fascinate generations of music-lovers. Plenty of films have been made about him before, but the latest focused on one of the most elusive aspects of Gould's existence: his love life. The Gould phenomenon is alive and kicking.

Shifting attitudes in the music world also help the piano recital to stay afloat. In the past 20 years recitals have been reinvigorated by the admission that virtuosity is not such a bad thing after all. Through the post-war decades, the word seemed tainted with associations of bad taste. We weren't really allowed to enjoy ourselves when listening to piano music. We had to minister to the lofty ideals of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven; Liszt's fantasias on operatic themes, or the dazzling display pieces created by Horowitz, attracted widespread disdain. But with the rise of pianists such as Arcadi Volodos and Marc-André Hamelin, who can play the most technically challenging piano works ever written faultlessly and with perfectly good taste, purist attitudes slunk quietly out of the back door. They are not missed.

Today there is room for everyone. On the one hand, we flock to ultra-serious musical feasts such as Daniel Barenboim performing Beethoven, Paul Lewis playing Schubert and Maurizio Pollini playing virtually everything. On the other hand, Lang Lang – the Chinese former child prodigy and new piano giant – is never far away. Love or loathe his flamboyant technique and rock-star persona, he has probably done more than anyone else to reinvent and popularise the piano for a new century and, in China itself, for a new superpower.

And now a new generation of pianists is coming to the fore. Above is a selection of the hottest young talents of the piano today, who are shaking up preconceptions and engaging audiences anew with their passion for music-making – even if some have also won a competition or two.

Rising scale: The pianists to watch

Behzod Abduraimov

Age 20

Nationality Uzbekistani

Big break Winner of London International Piano Competition 2009

From Tashkent, currently studying in Kansas City, he caused a sensation at the London International Piano Competition, where he brought the house down with an enthralling, adrenalin-charged account of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. "Could this fresh-faced child be a new Horowitz?" said 'The Independent' critic. A competition winner who deserved his prize.

Nareh Arghamanyan

Age 21

Nationality Armenian

Big break 2008 Winner of Montreal International Music Competition

Picked out by "Musical America" as "a major, major talent", Arghamanyan's playing is compulsive, emotional yet remarkably "complete" for such a young musician – sensitive, unaffected, genuine. She has declared that her inspiration comes from Glenn Gould in Bach, but that generally "It's from God. He gave me the talent and I use it for His glory."

Evgeni Bozhanov

Age 26

Nationality Bulgarian

Big break Fourth prize in the Chopin International Piano Competition, Warsaw, 2010

Bozhanov has made waves by not winning a competition. Though hot favourite for the Chopin Competition in Warsaw last year, he was placed only fourth, causing outrage among his growing cult following. He's a musician of tremendous intensity and power, even if he does pull some spectacular faces in the process.

Lara Omeroglu

Age 17

Nationality British

Big break Winner of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2010

Born in London to Turkish parents, Omeroglu studies at the Purcell School. She became the first pianist since Freddy Kempf to win the BBC Young Musician Competition outright when, last year, her enchantingly fresh and dazzlingly accomplished performance of Saint-Saëns's Piano Concerto No 2 captured everyone's imagination. A lovely, natural personality.

Khatia Buniatishvili

Age 23

Nationality Georgian

Big break Selected for BBC New Generation Artists 2010

Listening to Buniatishvili is like watching a high-wire artist with no safety net. She divides audiences because she takes so many risks, sometimes choosing tempi which prove impossible or volumes that send the piano out of tune. But her more lyrical playing is peerless; increased discipline will make her into an extraordinary musician.

Benjamin Grosvenor

Age 18

Nationality British

Big break Piano finalist of BBC Young Musician of the Year 2004, aged 11

A true child prodigy with musical maturity way beyond his years, Grosvenor, an unpretentious lad from Essex, astonished viewers with his performance in the BBC Young Musician final. Has an instinctive imagination for sound, colour and phrasing, plus delicious virtuosity which he clearly enjoys. Now a BBC New Generation Artist. He should have a brilliant future.

Yuja Wang

Age 23

Nationality Chinese

Big break Standing in for Martha Argerich in Boston, 2007

A compelling, energetic performer with heaps of charisma. Has a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. Hailed in some quarters as the successor to Lang Lang, she studied in the USA and combines ferociously copious virtuosity with a relatively unusual ability to explore different sound-worlds for each composer she plays.

Arts & Entertainment
Picture of innocence: Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington in ‘Derek’
TV
Arts & Entertainment
William Shakespeare's influence on English culture is still strongly felt today, from his plays on stage to words we use everyday
books50 Shakespeare phrases still in use, to mark the bard's 450th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The next wig thing: 'Drag Queens of London'
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Bear Grylls’ latest television show has been labelled sexist by female survival experts

TV
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio (left) could team up with British director Danny Boyle for the Steve Jobs (right) biopic
film
VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Rush hour: shoppers go sale crazy in Barkers, Kensington
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes play Catherine and Heathcliff in Pete Kosminsky's 1992 movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights
booksGoogle Doodle celebrates Charlotte Brontë's 198th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
Robin Thicke with his Official Number 1 Award for 'Blurred Lines', the most downloaded track in UK music history
Music
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello
Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

Arts & Entertainment
Tom Baker who played the Doctor longer than any other actor
tv
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival

film
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    The Poles who brought prosperity
    Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

    Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

    The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
    Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish

    Judith Owen: 'How my husband helped my music flourish'

    Her mother's suicide and father's cancer also informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
    The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

    Online lifeline: Housing association's educational initiative

    South Yorkshire Housing Association's free training courses gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
    Face-recognition software: Is this the end of anonymity for all of us?

    Face-recognition software: The end of anonymity?

    The software is already used for military surveillance, by police to identify suspects - and on Facebook
    Train Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video - so how can you cash in on your candid moments?

    Viral videos: Cashing in on candid moments

    Train Kick Selfie Guy Jared Frank could receive anything between $30,000 to $250,000 for his misfortune - and that's just his cut of advertising revenue from being viewed on YouTube
    The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

    World's fastest elevators coming soon to China

    Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject
    Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture that causes men to miss out on seeing their children

    Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture

    The organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills, a chief operating officer who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group that now boasts more than 3,000 members
    Ian Herbert: Manchester United broken so badly they need a big personality to carry out overhaul

    United broken so badly they need a big personality to carry out overhaul

    The size of the rebuild needed at Old Trafford is a task way beyond Ryan Giggs, says Ian Herbert
    Mark Schwarzer: Chelsea keeper aims to seize unlikely final chance

    Mark Schwarzer: Chelsea keeper aims to seize unlikely final chance

    The 41-year-old calmed his nerves to perform a classic 'Superman act' when he replaced Petr Cech in Madrid. One clean sheet later, he is now determined to become a club hero
    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

    It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

    Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
    Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

    Migrants in Britain a decade on

    They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

    The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?