Daniel-Ben Pienaar has garnered an international reputation for his unusual 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.
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, where he was in the piano class of Christopher Elton. During his time as a student Laurence Dreyfus' imaginative response to the early music debate and Jonathan Freeman-Attwood's understanding of the creative possibilities of recording made a deep impact. Upon 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. 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, aside from these works, 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 travelling extensively in Japan with the popular violinist Narimichi Kawabata, playing a diverse duo and solo repertoire.
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. This was released on the small independent label Prometheus Editions. These session tapes were revisited in 2007 for a revised edit, now released online on Magnatune. The Bach recording in 2003 was followed a few months later by the Chopin Ballades for Victor Japan. The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 2, recorded in autumn 2004, appeared on Magnatune in 2005. Since those early recordings Pienaar has always edited his own work.
His solo recordings since 2005:
2006 Orlando Gibbons – The Complete Keyboard Works (first complete recording, released by Deux-Elles)
2008-9 Mozart – The Eighteen Piano Sonatas (Avie)
2010 Bach – Goldberg Variations and the Fourteen Canons BWV1087 (Avie)
2011 Beethoven – Diabelli Variations and the Bagatelles Op.126 (Avie)
2012-4 Beethoven – The 32 Piano Sonatas (Avie)
2013 Bach – The Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1 (released in 2013 together with the 2004 recording of Book 2, Avie)
2015 Schubert – Twelve Great Sonatas (the eleven finished Sonatas and the fragment D.840, Avie)
2017 Chopin – The Four Ballades and Piano Sonata no.3 (not released yet)
2018 Arnold Van Wyk (1916-1983) – Complete Mature Piano Music (first complete recording, Africa Open Institute)
2018 The Long 17th Century – A Cornucopia of Early Keyboard Music (36 works, each by a different composer, 2CDs, Avie)
2018 Bach – The Six Keyboard Partitas (not released yet)
2020 Byrd – Pavans & Galliards, Variations & Grounds (39 works, 2CDs, the most extensive Byrd-only recording on piano to date, Avie)
2020 Haydn – 48 Sonatas and Variations in F minor (all the extant authenticated Sonatas, not released yet)
2021 Mozart – The Eighteen Piano Sonatas, with Ten Miscellaneous Pieces (new recording of the Sonatas, not released yet)
2022 Gaspard Le Roux – Complete Suites (Pièces de Clavessin, 1705) (first ever recording on piano, to be released in 2023)
Planned future recording projects include Brahms' complete Klavierstücke.
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; 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.
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 six discs, mostly 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 Divine Arts), performing Bach's Art of Fugue on harpsichords and chamber organs with Martin Knizia, and playing at prominent London venues 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 has included elective courses on Bach, on Mozart, on Schubert and on The Piano Sonata 1778-1854, running an interpretation seminar for master's degree students with cellist Neil Heyde, curating a series of repertoire and performance practice workshops for postgraduate pianists, and giving a series of classes on recording, with violinist Peter Sheppard-Skaerved. Public talks on a wide range of performance-related topics are also a regular feature of his Academy work, including a 'Listening to Recordings' series. 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 great recorded performances that surround them – demanding an active intervention from the performer as a bulwark against generic, uncritical reproduction. That implies taking stock of a gamut of expressive means, drawn from a variety of practices, in a personal and idiosyncratic way, and 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).