Daniel-Ben Pienaar has garnered an international reputation for his unusual pianism and musicianship. He has a particular interest in early music, Bach, the Viennese classics and early Romantics, and is especially noted for his substantial discography. He is an elected Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in London, and currently its Curzon Lecturer in Performance Studies. He is a Professor of the University of London and an Extraordinary Professor of the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.
Born in South Africa, he came to public notice there at the age of fourteen, performing Liszt's First Piano Concerto and Beethoven's 'Emperor' with the country's most prominent orchestras. He moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music. During his time as a student the lively debates around early music and the rapid changes in the recording industry and recording technology made a deep impact. Graduating in 1997, he received the prestigious Queen's Commendation.
Upon completing his formal training he set out on a programme of self-imposed study and reading, eschewing the competition circuit entirely, and making the decision to dedicate himself exclusively to the recital repertoire. In 1999 he first played the set of Six Partitas by Bach in one concert; 2000 saw his first Mozart Piano Sonata cycle. Since then he has variously given complete performances of a number of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Chopin cycles or groups of works, in addition to a representative selection of, mostly, 19th-century works.
Much of 1999-2005 was spent traveling extensively in Japan with the popular violinist Narimichi Kawabata, playing a diverse duo and solo repertoire at almost all the major venues in the country.
A summer of immersion in Bach in 2002 led to his first recording – two days of sessions devoted to The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 in 2003 (Prometheus Editions and, for a 2007 re-edit of this recording, Magnatune). This was followed a few months later by the Chopin Ballades (Victor Japan) and by The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2 in the autumn of 2004. Since those early recordings Pienaar has always mapped and edited his own work. He is now one of the very few pianists to have recorded of all four of the major 'Viennese' Piano Sonata cycles – those by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (all on Avie). Alongside his specific interest in the canonical repertoire, he has extensively recorded from the keyboard repertoire before Bach, including a first ever (and still only) complete recording of the keyboard works of Orlando Gibbons (2006), the most extensive Byrd-only recording on piano to date (2020), a 2CD multi-composer anthology ('The Long 17th Century', 2018) and the first recording on piano of Gaspard Le Roux’s Suites (2022). He has also made a first complete recording of the mature piano music of 20th-century South African composer, Arnold Van Wyk (2018).
These recordings have sometimes provoked heated discussion among critics, at academic conferences and on internet forums, but have also received outstanding reviews all over Europe, Asia and the US, as well as numerous special accolades, including Sunday Times (London) – listed among Top 5 Recordings of The Year; Sunday Times – 5* and Recording of the Week; Gramophone – Editor’s Choice; Gramophone – Rosette; BBC Music Magazine – Instrumental Recording of the Month; Independent (London) – Recording of the Week; ClassicFM Magazine – Recording of the Month; BBC Radio Three Record Review – Recording of the Week; BBC Radio 3 Record Review – Top Recommendation; MusicWebInternational – listed among Recordings of the Year; MusicWebInternational – Recording of the Month; MusicWebInternational – Recommended Recording; Rondomagazin (Germany) – Recording of the Week; Der Spiegel (Germany) – Featured Recording; Boston Classical Radio – CD of the Week; Apple Music – Top 10 of the Month; Reader's Digest – Recommended Recording; Scala Radio – Recording of the Weekend; and 10/10 ratings on ClassicsToday and AllMusic.
Notable recital credits include a Schubert cycle at the Duke’s Hall of the Royal Academy of Music; a Mozart cycle at the Holywell Room in Oxford; performing at the Singapore International Piano Festival and Eilat Festival in Israel; recitals for the Chopin Society of Minneapolis; playing the two books of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier on consecutive nights at London's King's Place; recitals at the Wigmore Hall; chamber music at Kioi Hall and Shinjuku Opera City in Tokyo; and re-introducing South African audiences to Arnold Van Wyk’s 1950s masterpiece, Night Music.
Chamber music collaborations have included re-imagining music from the 1600s through the mid-20th century for the unlikely combination of trumpet and piano with Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, and five discs of Pienaar's own arrangements were recorded for the Linn label. Several of these arrangements are published by Resonata Music, and a complete Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite by Boosey and Hawkes. Further chamber music activities have included popular cycles of the Brahms Violin Sonatas and Mozart’s mature Violin Sonatas at Wilton’s Music Hall with Peter Sheppard-Skaerved (Mozart's K.301-6 were also recorded in 2019 for Athene), performing Bach's Art of Fugue on harpsichords and chamber organs with Martin Knizia, and playing at prominent London venues (including the the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and St John’s, Smith Square) with violinist Giovanni Guzzo.
Pienaar now limits himself to only a small number of concert appearances, concentrating most of his energy on his recording projects and teaching obligations.
He has been a member of the Royal Academy of Music teaching faculty, assuming a variety of roles, since 2005. In addition to doctoral supervision, his teaching includes elective courses on key repertoire areas, performance practices and the legacy of great performers, alongside public talks on a wide range of performance-related materials. He views the performer's position in relation to the canonical repertoire as radically 'late' – both with respect to the works themselves, and to the performance traditions and recorded performances that surround them – demanding an active intervention from the performer as a bulwark against generic, uncritical reproduction. That implies taking stock of the gamut of expressive means, drawn from a variety of practices, in a personal and idiosyncratic way, setting the challenge of making music without taking recourse to a ready-made 'interpretative' philosophy or commercial niche.
His fascination with the recording process extends to acting occasionally as producer: a number of recordings for the Academy's own recording label have appeared, including such diverse ventures as 'American Icons' (symphonic brass) and ensemble arrangements of Frank Zappa. He has also produced a Liszt recital on historical and modern pianos by Olivia Sham (for Avie), and Liszt transcriptions and works by Busoni played by Chiyan Wong (for Linn).