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Video: The worst mistakes ever made by the greatest pianists

Horowitz, Richter, Cortot, Curzon, Kempff, Glenn Gould…. it can happen to anyone. Warning: Do not watch while consuming a hot beverage.

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  1. Most of these errors are mistakes in judgement, rather than technique. If something is taken ridiculously fast and some notes go astray, it’s due to an imposition of brute force triumphing over expression.

  2. SergioM says:

    Now that’s funny!

  3. It is interesting that both Schnabel and Horowitz were quite in the same place at Beethoven Op.101, along 30 years of gap between both records. I’m not a pianist to understand if it is just coincidence or a really common place for mistakes due to technical difficulties.

  4. Well if we’re on that subject, we have to remember this Bolero:

    And of course this Messiah:

    • José Bergher says:

      What counts is not the few chords that were slightly out of general agreement at the end of the otherwise formidable and insightful interpretation of organ part in Händel’s immortal work, but the passion, enthusiasm, devotion and eloquence of the player. Nothing in life is perfect. Not all birds can manage to sing like Galli-Curci.

  5. Bill Dodd says:

    Thanks— I feel much better about the way my day is going!

  6. Daniel Farber says:

    It’s fascinating, of course, but I feel a little “unclean” in allowing myself the pleasure, not a little like watching gladiators in with the lions. Some of the just barely “smudged” passages of great difficulty shouldn’t really be here, but since an entire hour (or two) could be taken with only the wrong notes of Cortot and Schnabel, the supreme artists of the 20th century, we should be thankful for small favors.

  7. neil van der linden says:

    And Rubinstein admits it with a lot of irony.

  8. Bill Morrison says:

    This is funny, but really, most of these pieces are so virtuosic that although I can tell there’s something wrong, I can’t tell exactly what without following the score. Many of them are such dense thickets of notes that if the pianist gets half of them right, the effect is much the same. What’s really funny are obvious errors in the easier parts, such as d’Albert massacring Beethoven in 1930….

  9. Janie O'Brien says:

    Arthur Rubinstein – priceless and an absolute darling!

  10. This is entertaining but I think we place undue emphasis on note-perfect playing. After all, it wasn’t really until the advent of the acoustic recording that mistakes of any kind were much fretted about. I forget whether it was Rubinstein or Horowitz, but one of them admitted that they would typically make so many mistakes in any given concert that they could fill dozens of new recitals with just the notes they missed.

    Interestingly, the clip of Horowitz playing the run-up to the finale in the Tchaikovsky at 6:07 actually stopped short of the point at the very end where Horowitz and Szell (conducting the NY Philharmonic, see at about 30:30) started racing to the end – with Horowitz finishing first by about a half-measure before the orchestra, even after Horowitz threw a few extra notes to let them try to catch up.
    But that “egregious error,” in my opinion, takes nothing away from a performance I consider to be perhaps the single most inspired, electrifying – even super-human – piano miracles ever recorded (Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations notwithstanding).

    So, why do we insist on listening to the noise and not the music these days? Here’s my theory. As we know, recording technology – once a process of granite-style etching – would eventually come to allow, even encourage, the editing of transient content after the fact – not necessarily a good thing as far as I’m concerned. The false idol of note-perfect playing – much as one who adheres strictly to the letter of the law in hot pursuit of yet another clever little loophole rather than obey the spirit and true intent of the law itself – is now too often the measure of the musician. Unfortunately, millions of young students (not to mention teachers and competition judges) seem to look at note-perfect playing as the only objective, unarguable testament to the value of a given performance. In fact, this habit of “error enumeration and accountability” during performance – simply because it is more or less quantifiable – seems to have shunted aside the average concert-goer’s ability to discern from the rest, the truly artistic, innovative, daring or otherwise important musical performances they should be looking for.

    I’ll even go so far as to say that “keeping a ledger” during a performance directly interferes with our ability to hear the music. It sure does mine. And sometimes I can’t help it.

    How do I explain then, suddenly being jarred back into reality by a musical mishap, as happened recently when Lang Lang played Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with the Atlanta Symphony? Lang Lang (or just Lang, I suppose, or maybe even Mr. Lang) inexplicably lost his way for several measures, improvising until he could regain his footing. Did it take away from the performance? I’m not sure it did – although I began a quick little debate in my mind about whether I was relieved these things happened to him too, or whether I should instead be indignant about it and somehow feel cheated. Anyway, I know I had to deliberately clear my head of it and claw my way back to where our musical Zeitgeist was before the hit-and-run happened. It wasn’t easy.

    Back to the original video: If I were to see how many “musical crimes” were committed and recorded for posterity by the greatest pianists of the 20th century, I would certainly start with the Liszt Sonata or Alkan’s Concerto. Or I’d listen to any random five minutes of recording by the greatest who ever lived: Cortot was always brilliant – but totally reckless if you look at the actual notes he played (or didn’t play). Schnabel too, and of course Horowitz. Others like Brendel and Benedetti were borderline fetishists about never, ever, ever deviating from the printed note, intentionally or otherwise. To me, though, the genius of each of those artists lay in how powerfully they were able say what they said, not how accurately they were able to quantifiably adhere to some arguably fictitious measure of particle-sized tolerance.

    • In one of the most remarkable performances of the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto and probably Horowitz’ finest, there was one glaring clank that caught my ear. I would not trade that performance for a note-perfect rendition ever: the passion with which he played, the symbiosis with the orchestra, the electricity from the whole of the music completely shines over any mistake. This is true for amateur performers, too.

      In fact, people so critical (especially on YouTube where amateurs get their fifteen minutes) that potential students of the classical art form are turned off and look for other avenues of expression. It is to our loss.

      I am with you, Mr. Zimmerman.

  11. Niall Hoskin says:

    These are signs of the players being alive and live! I would so much rather here a flawed performance by Schnabel or Rubinstein or Richter than some bloodless clinical but impeccable studio recording.

  12. Rosalind Britton says:

    This video makes me recall a live broadcast on the BBC in the 1960s, with Emil Gilels playing a Chopin piano concerto. He got caught in a repeat section which he kept repeating as if he were caught in a maze and couldn’t find the escape route. It continued until he finally stopped and the orchestra broke in and played the next section into which he finally entered and continued till the end. It was quite nerve racking!

  13. Sokolov-fan says:

    Love this video and the channel is great fun, too! And it shows how fearsome the passages like Schumann Fantaisie’s 2nd movement ending and almost every bit of Alkan Concerto really are.

  14. Theodore McGuiver says:

    Horowitz’ mistakes are appropriate, given his grotesque interpretations but as for the rest, well, they’re…human.

    • SergioM says:

      Thank God! I’ve finally found someone who feels the same way I do about “All Thumbs’ Horowitz

    • Marshall says:

      Still beating the anti-Horowitz drum?-what 20 years after his death? Such a tiresome perspective-as old Wanda used to say, when there was praise or negativity from people in the audience-your opinion doesn’t matter either way.

  15. Lukas Fierz says:

    And so what?

    May we remember the following wisdom of the venerable Ivry Gitlis:

    “Remember that a beautiful “wrong” note by a Kreisler, a Thibaud, a Casals or a Callas is worth more than a thousand so-called “right” notes and that playing that is hygienically and clinically correct is not necessarily a sign of good health! Take heart! Good health to you!”

  16. csrster says:

    Kudos to Rubinstein for reproducing his long-lost youthful mistakes for the modern audience.

  17. Mark Stratford says:

    An interesting subject !

    There ought to be some Andras Schiff there. A Beethoven 2nd concerto from Edinburgh once nearly collapsed with his fumbles. A Bartok 2nd Concerto had the left hand missing during a bit of the cadenze and a Bartok 3rd concerto had him missing an entry in the second movenment. And he had played all these pieces many times.

    Anybody been in attendance at spectacular memory lapses ?

    • Slight lapses of concentration happen to just about everybody, without exception — even with the notes on the music stand. And not just to pianists, although ever since Franz Liszt “invented” the solo recital, pianists have borne the onus of having to perform in public by memory.

      I sometimes wonder how often Liszt had such a “memory lapse” … and whether anybody really cared? There are stories of Liszt missing the high note in a run by a half-step lower, smiling ever so faintly to himself, and then playing an arpeggio in the dominant key down to the lower register of the keyboard and completing it on the previously expected high note in the tonic key. I wonder how many contemporary pianists would have the “sang-froid” and/or the competence to do the same?

      Counting memory slips in performances has about as much to do with enjoyment of music as counting orgasms has to do with the quality of love-making…

      • Your point, RH, is valid, but your concluding simile seems inappropriate for the following reason: multiple memory slips cannot possibly add to the enjoyment of the music, but multiple orgasms can and more often than not do improve the quality of lovemaking. However, i have to agree with you that keeping count in either of these two unrelated cases is a pointless endeavor.

    • I never heard a world-class artist suffer a major lapse in a concert which I attended (except for once, read about it below), although there are plenty of stories out there about memory lapses of some of the greats (Schnabel, Josef Lhevinne, etc.) And there are plenty of Horowitz’ lapses documented here and there, for example even in the recording (!) towards the end of the 3rd movement of the Rachmaninoff 3rd concerto with Albert Coates, the one from the 1930′s,

      The only time which i still remember today quite vividly was hearing Nikita Magaloff who substituted for Claudio Arrau on one day’s notice in the Hamburg Musikhalle (now the Laiesz-Halle) back in 1978 or 1979, I think it was. He played a different program than that which was announced — his included the Liszt B minor Sonata — perhaps that was one of the pieces that Aarau was supposed to play?

      It was spectacular playing until he came to the fugato, then there was a slight fumble somewhere which he tried to correct. Unfortunately, it got worse as it went along, getting caught up in some kind of loop and not being able to find the exit! Eventually he got to a spot where the left-hand octaves start, and then he was able to get back into the music again. I felt very sorry for him, as i always do when this happens to anyone. We’ve all been there, done that before — and it is a dreadful experience, to say the least. I’m sure the last-minute substitution situation was partly to blame; after all, you are playing to a full house of more than 2,000 people, all of whom actually would rather be listening to Arrau.

      And I have heard plenty of not-so-famous pianists with memory problems … but I think this is a moot point. It’s really only a jaw-dropper if it is someone whom we would least expect to have one.

  18. David Hutchings says:

    Videos like this really annoy me. A lot of great playing in there. WHO CARES about wrong notes if they are played with passion or conviction of their musical purpose. Lots of these examples though less than perfect are a lot better than the sterile performances we tend to get a lot of nowadays!

  19. George Gluek says:

    This is interesting, but other than Victor Borge, I’m not sure why it’s funny . . . we all make mistakes.

  20. Can’t see it in Germany, obviously there is a copyright on mistakes also..

    • Heike,

      There are a lot of videos not allowed to play on tube in Germany. I’ve got more or less 200 videos taped by myself on my page, but 2/3 is considered with copyrights problems in Germany. Besides it, 70% of everything taped inside Germany places (Theaters) are treated by local management until I’ve drop it down from the page. That’s the hardest place to produce bootleg videos in the western world.

      YouTube uses your computer IP address to determine your physical location / country. In order to bypass these country-specific restrictions on YouTube, try this trick:

      If the URL of the YouTube video is – just replace the /watch?v= part with /v so your new URL becomes

      Alternatively, you may download the YouTube video through a proxy and watch it offline. The other trick is that you type the YouTube video URL inside Google Translate and use this a free Google Proxy Server.

    • Timon Wapenaar says:

      All your mistakes are belong to us.

  21. joe salerno says:

    Why look for spots on the sun?

  22. Ronald Cavaye says:

    I am reminded of something I once heard on Radio 3 – if anyone remembers who actually said it, I would like to know. It seems to be apt here. Despite the mistakes, change these pianists for a great singer and we have – “One squawk from Maria Callas is worth more than 100 competition winners.”

  23. How shocking. That one should be human. What a crime.

  24. Bob Burns says:

    So, then, how does one *really* get to Carnegie Hall? :)

    Seriously, we’re all human, I guess. Well, except Rubenstein, who was preternatural.

  25. Echoing one commenter on the youtube page, I don’t hear mistakes but clips of incredible music and performers.

    • neil van der linden says:

      Watching respected geniuses should not make you blind for mistakes, even if the mistakes do not alter their genie. There is perfection-fetishism and there is names-fetishism. Some of the mistakes that are shown or discussed are terrible, as Rubinstein agrees upon. He also half ridiculises the audience that does not even hear the mistakes and is only obsessed by the performer.

      • I was listening to the clips not necessarily watching who they were, but being impressed by the music itself. This is the much wider middle area occupied between note perfection and the cult of personality.

  26. This is reminding me of a late all-Chopin recital by Rubinstein in Philharmonic Hall (as it was then known). He could barely play a right note in the first dozen or so pages of the F-Minor Fantaisie which began the concert, but then settled down to some glorious playing. I was curious what Harold Schonberg (I think this was the reviewer) would say in the Times the next day. Voila: “Last night Arthur Rubinstein gave an all-Chopin program in Philharmonic Hall. The great pianist began nervously [then all the wonders which ensued are enumerated in detail].”

    I remember hearing Rubinstein a few years later in Boston. By then he seemed to have found his new “old” voice. His Carnaval was quite restrained, for instance, but this gave him an opportunity to do all sorts of wonderful things he would not have tried in his long lost youth,

  27. Of course some passages are notorious (like that one from the second movement of Schumann’s Fantasy). When a pianist arrives at these points, he has often already worked himself into a frenzy in anticipation.

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