The 50 greatest living artists have been chosen because they exalt the human spirit through the creation of elegantly expressive objects and movingly modulated performances.
Lose yourself in these beautiful works and performances.
Each list consists of 10 persons in each of five categories: Dance and Drama; Film; Literature; Music; and Painting, Sculpture, and Related Media.
Within each category, the lists are alphabetical. Each individual’s country and year of birth, as well as primary field of artistic endeavor, are given in parentheses. Note: When the name of an artist’s birth country has changed, we give the name it had in the year of his birth first, with the current name afterwards, in square brackets.
In the performing arts categories (Dance and Drama; Music), not only authors (playwrights, choreographers, composers), but also performers (dancers, actors, singers, instrumentalists) are represented, as well as a few directors and conductors.
Whatever their individual differences, collectively these 50 artists demonstrate that in our day—rumors to the contrary notwithstanding—beauty is not dead.
Greatest Living Musical Artists
(UK, 1971; composer)
Below is a recording of the sixth movement—“O Albion”—of Adès’s 1994 string quartet, Arcadiana (Opus 12).
Thomas Adès, who was born and raised in London, is the Britten Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music. His works are uniquely accessible and melodious—if still rigorously modernist—in character, and he is one of the most widely admired among the younger generation of classical music composers, by critics and public alike.
To date, he has written some 40 original compositions, ranging from keyboard, chamber, and orchestral music to brief vocal and choral works, to full-scale operas. He is also a gifted pianist and conductor, who often interprets his own works, both in the studio and on stage.
Although he has enjoyed great good fortune in his career and inspires tremendous affection among his devoted public, make no mistake: Adès is a fully paid-up modern composer, by no means a classicizing composer of an anachronistic or nostalgic bent. But by the same token, he never goes in for childish exhibitionism or cheap nihilism. Rather, he always places spiky dissonance, atonality, and other modernist effects at the service of a traditional vision of the human being as existing in relation to a transcendental order of truth, goodness, and beauty.
Here is a list of several of Adès’s most famous works:
- Aubade (1990) – soprano solo
- Chamber Symphony (1990) – 15-piece chamber ensemble
- Anthems (1990) – male voices and organ
- Darknesse Visible (1992) – piano
- Les barricades mystérieuses (1994) – clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, cello and double bass
- Arcadiana (1994) – 2 violins, viola and cello
- Powder Her Face (1995) – opera
- Asyla (1997) – orchestra
- The Fayrfax Carol (1997) – mixed chorus
- The Tempest (2004) – opera
- Concerto: Concentric Paths (2005) – violin and chamber orchestra
- In Seven Days (2008) – piano and orchestra
- Lieux retrouvés (2009) – Cello and piano
- Polaris (2010) – orchestra
- The Exterminating Angel (2016) – opera
(USSR[Russia], 1937; pianist)
Below is a video of Ashkenazy performing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, “Pastorale” (Opus 28).
Vladimir Ashkenazy is a pianist and conductor who was born in the city known in Soviet times as Gorky, which has now reverted back to its older Russian name of Nizhny-Novgorod. His father was Jewish and his mother Russian Orthodox.
His musical gift was spotted early, and he was able to attend the prestigious Moscow Conservatory. He traveled abroad extensively during the 1950s and ’60s, winning many prizes at international music competitions. However, with his growing international celebrity came growing pressure from the KGB to act as an informer on his trips abroad, which he steadfastly refused to do. In retaliation, his opportunities to travel abroad to play became severely curtailed.
Ashkenazy had married an Icelandic national in 1961, and in 1968 the couple were allowed to travel to Iceland, where they lived for several years, Ashkenazy taking Icelandic citizenship in 1972. In 1978, the couple with their growing family moved to Switzerland, which is Ashkenazy’s primary place of residence to this day.
Ashkenazy has concentrated on both the concerto and solo piano repertoires, and is especially associated with the music of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Shostakovich. Ashkenazy’s playing is particularly noted for its technical perfection and brilliant clarity. Some critics actually reproach him for this, claiming his total control of technique betrays a lack of personality and emotional warmth. The majority of critics and listeners, however, feel his relatively dispassionate pianism stems from his unusual personal humility. He simply sees his role at the keyboard, not as that of expressing his own feelings, but rather putting his talent at the service of the music itself. At any event, the pianist has a large and worshipful following, which is anything but dispassionate about the man and his music.
3Dame Janet Baker
(UK, 1933; mezzo-soprano)
Below is a video of Baker singing Schubert’s “An die Musik” (D547).
Janet Baker is an English mezzo-soprano, who was born in provincial South Yorkshire. The death of her brother when she was 10 years old, and a serious accident she herself had in 1956 when she was knocked down a London street by a bus, cast shadows over her early personal life. Coming from a family of modest financial means, Baker had to work in a bank to make ends meet while studying voice and entering various public singing competitions.
She began performing publicly in 1956, the same year as her accident. By 1959, she was working regularly, notably in Handel’s and Purcell’s operas, the Baroque music revival just gathering steam at the time. In addition to the Baroque vocal and operatic repertoire, Baker is closely associated with the music of Mozart, Gustav Mahler, Edward Elgar, Benjamin Britten, and Richard Strauss. Her version of Mahler’s sublime Kindertotenlieder is considered by many to be definitve.
Baker, who is considered to be an outstanding actress as well as singer, was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) in 1976. Her vocalism has been described as singular, haunting, lingering, and uncannily luminous.
(Switzerland, 1939; oboist)
Below is a recording of Holliger (with I Musici) playing the Adagio movement of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in B-flat major (RV 548).
Heinz Holliger is an internationally renowned Swiss oboist, composer, and conductor. Many of the most important composers of recent times have written works for him, including Olivier Messiaen, Elliott Carter, Hans Werner Henze, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Witold Lutosławski, and Krzysztof Penderecki.
In addition to the works of these modernist composers, Holliger has a special affinity for the Baroque repertoire, especially the oboe concertos of Bach, Vivaldi, and Jan Dismas Zelenka. Indeed, through his recordings Holliger was instrumental in reviving interest in the distinguished Czech composer, whose name had previously lapsed into obscurity.
As a composer, Holliger has contributed a Chaconne commissioned by the great Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. He has also written an operatic version for solo soprano and tape of Samuel Beckett’s play, Not I.
Critics emphasize the naturalness and the effortlessness—the lack of calculation—of his playing, when searching for words to describe the special marriage of technical perfection and sublime aesthetic effects that is characteristic of Holliger’s musicality.
(USSR[Russia], 1962; baritone)
Below is a video clip of Hvorostovsky singing Handel’s “Ombra Mai Fu,” from Serse (1738).
Dmitri Hvorostovsky is a Russian baritone. Born in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where he also made his public debut, by his mid-twenties he was winning prestigious national prize competitions in France, as well as the Soviet Union. He came to international attention in 1989, when he unexpectedly edged out Bryn Terfel for first place in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition.
Since then, he has performed throughout the world, notably in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the Nice Opera, in the same composer’s Eugene Onegin at Le Fenice in Venice, in Verdi’s La Traviata at the Chicago Lyric Opera, and again in the Queen of Spades at the New York Metropolitan Opera. He has also sung major roles at La Scala in Milan, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, at the Wiener Staatsoper in Vienna, and, in brief, at most of the major opera houses the world over.
In addition to his work in the classic opera repertoire, Hvorostovsky is also known for his recitals of lighter fare (Handel, Mozart, and others) and especially of World War II–era Russian popular songs.
Critics refer to Hvorostovsky’s stage presence in glowing terms such as glamorous, charismatic, and supremely elegant, and to his singing as magnificent, bleakly beautiful, and mesmerizing.
In 2015, Hvorostovksy was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and had to cancel some scheduled appearances. However, he has continued to appear in certain roles familiar to him, especially Verdi’s Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and Simon Boccanegra. In April of 2017, the baritone often described by smitten journalists as a “hunk” was well enough to hold a series of highly successful concerts at various venues in North America.
(USSR[Latvia], 1947; violinist)
Below is a video of Kremer playing the fifth movement (“Ciaconna”) from Bach’s Partita for Violin No. 2 in D minor (BWV 1004) (c. 1720).
Gidon Kremer is a violinist who was born in Riga, Latvia, into a musical family. His father’s side of the family was Jewish. He began learning the violin at the age of four, and later studied at the Riga School of Music. In 1965, he entered the prestigious Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with the world-renowned violinist, David Oistrakh.
Beginning in 1967, Kremer began entering foreign competitions. Over the next few years, he took third prize in Brussels, second prize in Montreal, and first prize in Genoa, before returning home to win the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1970.
After touring extensively during the 1970s, Kremer settled permanently in Germany in 1980. The following year, he founded a chamber music festival in Lockehnhaus, Austria, also serving as its artistic director until 2011. In 1997, he finally realized a project that had been close to his heart for some time: He founded the Kremerata Baltica chamber orchestra, whose membership initially comprised 23 outstanding young musicians all of whom were from the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia). Kremerata Baltica is widely considered to be one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world.
While particularly known for his renditions of the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin, as well as the Beethoven violin sonatas and concertos, Kremer has also gravitated to the modern violin repertoire, seeking out works by lesser-known composers, such as the Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg, among many others.
Critics extol the passion and the artistry of Kremer’s playing, as well as his personal dedication, capacity for self-criticism, and openness to new musical ideas and influences.
(USSR[Latvia], 1948; cellist)
In the video below Maisky plays Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major (BWV 1007).
Mischa Maisky is a cellist who was born in Riga, Latvia, and studied at the Moscow Conservatory with the internationally renowned cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. Subsequently, he studied with Gregor Piatigorsky in Los Angeles; Maisky is the only cellist to have studied with both of those masters. Today, he is an Israeli citizen who makes his home in Belgium, though he has stated that he considers himself a citizen of the world.
Though Maisky initially moved easily and quickly through the musical hierarchy of the Soviet Union, after his sister emigrated to Israel in 1970, he was arrested and spent 18 years in prison and a labor camp. After two more months in a psychiatric hospital, Maisky was finally allowed to follow his sister, and left for Israel in 1972.
Maisky has performed with many of the world’s leading pianists, violinists, and conductors. Rostropovich has said of his pupil:
[He is] one of the most outstanding talents of the younger generation of cellists. His playing combines poetry and exquisite delicacy with great temperament and brilliant technique.
Maisky frequently works with the world-class pianist, Martha Argerich. One critic, in a review of a joint performance by the duo of Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D minor (Opus 40), wrote that Maisky is a “flamethrower,” going on to say:
His headlong plunges into the Shostakovich were tributes to an extraordinary technique. No note is cheated, no note out of tune, this in the midst of outright war.
(Estonia, 1933; composer)
Below is a video clip of a performance by the Aquarius Vocal Ensemble of Ode VII of Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen (“Canon of Repentance”). Note that the text is in Old Church Slavonic.
Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer of secular and religious music. He was educated in Estonia at the Tallinn Conservatory.
Early in his career, he employed ultra-modernist serial techniques, until such works were suppressed by the Soviet authorities. Then, in the early 1970s, he began a serious study of Medieval and Renaissance musical forms, and his compositional style underwent a radical transformation. Around this same time, he converted from the Lutheran to the Russian Orthodox faith.
The first major works that Pärt published employing his new style were Fratres, Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Tabula Rasa, all in 1977. Gradually, these and the flood of works that followed, which also derived from medieval plainchant and Renaissance polyphony, began to bring Pärt to the attention of the outside world.
Pärt also experimented with some neo-classical works in the new “minimalist” style that became the international rage—especially with the vogue for the music of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and others—around this same time.
However, the style with which Pärt is most closely identified, and which has made his reputation, is undoubtedly his religious music, both small- and large-scale. Following is a list of some of the best-known works representative of this genre:
- De Profundis (1980)
- Stabat Mater (1985)
- Te Deum (1985; revised 1992)
- St. John Passion (1989)
- Magnificat (1989)
- Miserere (1989; revised 1992)
- The Beatitudes (1990)
- Kanon Pokajanen (1997)
- Nunc Dimittis (2001)
- Salve Regina (2001)
- Da Pacem Domine (2004)
- Adam’s Lament (2009)
(Japan, 1947; composer)
Below is a recording of Satoh’s 1991 work for baritone and orchestra, Kyokoku.
Somei Satoh is a Japanese composer working primarily in the Western classical mode, but who has also composed pieces for traditional Japanese instruments. He incorporates philosophical ideas drawn from Shintoism and Zen Buddhism into his work.
Satoh is also known for joining forces with various experimental, performance, and environmental artists. In one of his most arresting ventures of this type, in 1981 Satoh had eight speakers installed in the mountains surrounding a valley in Tochigi Prefecture. He then released an artificial fog from the valley floor and used music from the speakers, together with lasers, to manipulate the fog into interesting cloud formations.
As Satoh’s international stature has grown, he has received commissions for new works from the Kronos Quartet and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, among others. Although for some years now Satoh has focused on writing music for a full orchestra, over the years he has also been a prolific composer of songs.
While the majority of Satoh’s compositions have been written for traditional European musical instruments, even these Western-style pieces are heavily influenced by the distinctive timbre of traditional Japanese court music. Thus, his work creates an authentic fusion of Western and Japanese musical idioms and sensibilities.
Following is a list of some of Satoh’s best-known works:
- Mandala (1982) – voice and electronics
- Stabat Mater (1987) – solo soprano and mixed chorus
- Toki No Mon (A Gate into Infinity) (1988) – violin, piano, and percussion
- Ruika (1990) – cello and strings
- Kyokoku (1991) – baritone and orchestra
- Burning Meditation (1993) – baritone and string orchestra
- Kisestsu (1999) – orchestra
- From the Depth of Silence (2000) – tubular bells and orchestra
- Violin Concerto (2002) – violin and orchestra
- Bifu (2012) – violin and piano
(Spain 1941; gambist, conductor)
Below is a recording from the soundtrack of Tous le matins du monde, in which Savall and Christophe Coin play “Le retour,” a “Concert à deux viols” written by Marin Marais’s teacher, the mysterious Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe.
Jordi Savall is a Spanish (more specifically, Catalan) conductor and adept of the viola da gamba (a forerunner of the modern cello). Born in the Catalan town of Igualada and trained at the Barcelona Conservatory of Music, Savall has been a major force behind the early music revival in Western Europe over the past 50 years, as well as an important exponent of the viola da gamba and other early instruments.
Savall made the leap from music-world fame to household-name celebrity through the 1991 film, Tous le matins du monde, directed by Alain Corneau. The movie, for which Savall served as musical director, was based on the life of the French court composer and violist, Marin Marais. It was through this film and its exquisite soundtrack that millions were first introduced to the sublime world of late-seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century viola da gamba music.
Over the years, Savall has founded several ensembles devoted to the exploration of the vast and until-recently neglected early music repertoire, including Hespèrion XX (now Hespèrion XXI), La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and La Concert des Nations. The remit of all these groups has been to combine maximum musical sensitivity with maximum historical accuracy.
Savall frequently played with his wife, the soprano Montserrat Figueras, until her death in 2011. He continues to tour and record with his daughter, the singer and harpist Arianna Savall, and his son, the singer and bass-lute (theorbo) player Ferran Savall.
With over 100 recordings to his name, Jordi Savall’s impact on contemporary music is truly incalculable.
2. Bernard Holland, “Music in Review; Mischa Maisky and Martha Argerich” (New York Times, 2002).
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