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Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli The Complete Warner Recordings
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano)
Full track-listing below WARNER CLASSICS 2564 615488 [14 CDs: 781:49]
This 14 CD set has been released by Warner to mark the twentieth anniversary of the death of the Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in 1995. In 1939 Michelangeli landed first prize at the Geneva Piano Competition. This triumphant victory catapulted him onto the international stage as one of the foremost exponents of the keyboard, and one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. Yet, for a pianist of such stature, his public repertoire was relatively small. This doesn’t always appear to have always been the case. Looking at what is on offer in this generously filled collection, his repertoire in the early days was certainly more eclectic and diverse. As the career progressed, his perfectionism, which bordered on the obsessive, led him to home in on certain repertoire and fine tune it; he was almost a slave to detail. His forays into the recording studio were few and his commercial recorded legacy is limited. Fortunately for us his discography is bulked out with unauthorized and authorized live performances.
There is so much terrific pianism on offer here, and many of the recordings I’ve been familiar with for some time. It is to be applauded that Warner have collected them together, and issued them at an affordable price. Here are some of the highlights.
The Bach/Busoni Chaconne which opens CD 1 is a stunning performance of nobility and grandeur. There are moments of great tension and drama, but also moments of poetic serenity. In Bach’s Italian Concerto he illuminates the contrapuntal writing, teasing out and delineating the polyphonic strands with clarity and definition. Taped in Milan in 1941, the Beethoven Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op. 2 No. 3 is truly astonishing, showcasing the pianist’s rhythmic exactitude and icy perfectionism, a quality he exhibited even at the young age of twenty-one. It’s certainly the most impressive reading of this technically challenging sonata I’ve ever heard. The daredevil pace of the finale, with its tricky, rapidly articulated ascending sixths and pearl-like runs, I’ve never heard matched. In the 1987 Vatican recording (Memoria 999-001), this superhuman brilliance is no longer present. In the 1948 recording of the Brahms Paganini Variation, the pianist throws all caution to the wind in a performance of scintillating virtuosity, bringing the same meticulous attention to detail to each variation.
Michelangeli retained only a handful of Mozart piano concertos in his active repertoire, and of the three recorded 1951-53, nos 13 and 15 remained with him throughout. There are documented performances as late as 1990 with Cord Garben and the NDR Sinfonieorchester; K 488 dropped out of his repertoire in 1953. The only other concertos he performed in concert are No. 20 in D minor, K 466 and No. 25 in C major, K 503. I am grateful we have No. 13, as it is rarely played and has an enchanting slow movement. K 415 and K 488 date from 1953 and are in satisfactory sound for their age. No 15, K 450 was set down two years earlier and is sonically not up to the mark. The sound is boxy and distorted, and the piano is hard-edged and brittle, with the orchestra relegated to the shadows. Michelangeli’s Mozart is not prettified by any means, nor does it possess that Viennese charm that I find in Geza Anda, Ingrid Haebler and Wilhem Kempff. Rather it is more impersonal and what I would describe as marmoreal. Nevertheless, one can only admire his impressive control of dynamics, nuance and inflection.
Since being recorded in 1957, the Ravel and Rachmaninov concertos have never been out of the catalogue. They’ve had several CD incarnations, and have been deservedly accoladed with GROC status. The Rachmaninov Concerto No. 4 is probably the least well-known of the composer’s four, and for me the least accessible. Michelangeli proves a persuasive advocate, and his impeccable technique, finesse and refinement are very much in evidence. Surprisingly, this is the only work by Rachmaninov in the pianist’s discography. In the Ravel, the pianist likewise displays his credentials in a compelling performance. The slow movement is a mesmerising reading, sublimely phrased. The detail, colour and insights he brings to the score make it a winner in every respect. Ettore Gracis and the Philharmonia give inspirational support.
The same month that these two concertos were set down, Michelangeli performed a solo recital in London’s Royal Festival Hall (4 March 1957). It is almost twenty years since Testament released the recital (SBT 2088). I enthusiastically acquired it, and have returned to it many times since. It’s presence in this set is very welcome indeed. The high points for me are the Debussy Images, invested with a wealth of insights and tonal shadings. The Schumann Faschingsschwank aus Wien and Carnaval make fitting bed-fellows and Michelangeli, who has a great affinity with this composer, gives stylish and idiomatic performances. The Schumann works were also taken into the BBC studios at around this time, and have been released on DG (423 231-2).
Twenty years separates the two included performances of the Schumann Concerto. The 1942 studio version with the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano under Alceo Galliera is earthbound and uninspired and never really gets off the ground. Also, the sound quality is poor. The audience presence in the live 1962 airing with the Italian Radio Symphony Orchestra Rome under Gianandrea Gavazzeni inspires all concerned to greater heights, and is sonically more acceptable.
I’m particularly drawn to the two Haydn Concertos, Nos. 4 and 11, studio recorded in 1975 with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and Edmond de Stoutz. I’ve known these performances for many years, and have always found them invigorating, by turns witty and vivacious, yet subtle and delicate. Michelangeli brings such freshness and spontaneity to them.
Whilst I enjoy Michelangeli’s Chopin recordings, it’s a pity he limited himself to a few of the composer’s works. He only performed the first Ballade for instance, and the first two Scherzos. Oh to have heard him in the Barcarolle, the Polonaises and the Third Sonata. After all, this was music he excelled in, even though he performed it in an idiosyncratic way, very much stamped with his own brand of individuality. Scattered throughout the set are numerous fine examples.
Although many will own some of these recordings, this set has much to commend it, and is well worth the price. Frédéric Gaussin paints an intriguing portrait, in the booklet, of a ‘taciturn, enigmatic and austere figure’ who still, to this day, twenty years after his death, inspires fascination and awe for his ‘absolute technical mastery and fanatical perfectionism’. The CD pockets exhibit an interesting array of black and white photographs of the maestro. Lovers of great pianism will certainly want this set.
Stephen Greenbank Contents
CD 1 [62:31] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) (arr. Busoni)
Chaconne Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757) Sonatas Kk9 & Kk11 Baldassarre GALUPPI (1706-1816)
Sonata in B-flat (Extract) Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata No. 3 in C major, Op 2 No. 3 Frederic CHOPIN (1810–1849)
Mazurka Op. 68 No. 2
Waltz Op. 69 No. 1
rec. 1941-48 (Milan)
CD 2 [45:09] Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a theme by Paganini Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) Lyric Pieces Op. 47 No. 5 & Op. 68 No. 5 Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860-1909) Malagueña Claude DEBUSSY(1862-1918)
Reflets dans l'eau Enrique GRANADOS (1867-1916) Andaluza Federico MOMPOU (1893-1987) Canción y danza No. 1 André-François MARESCOTTI (1902-1995) Fantasque
rec. 1939-48 (Milan)
CD 3 [79:02] Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791) Piano Concerto No. 13 in C, K.415
Piano Concerto No. 15 in B flat, K.450 Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, K488
Alessandro Scarlatti Orchestra/ Franco Caracciolo
Pomeriggi Musicali Chamber Orchestra/Ettore Gracis (K450)
CD 4 [51:34] Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Faschingsschwank aus Wien
rec. live, RFH London 1957
CD 5 [78:43] Claude DEBUSSY Images Frederic CHOPIN Fantasie Op. 49
Ballade Op. 23
Waltz in E-flat Op. posth. Federico MOMPOU Canción No. 6 REHEARSAL AND SOUND-CHECK
rec. live, RFH London 1957
CD 6 [46:34] Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Piano Concerto in G Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873–1943) Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor
Philharmonia Orchestra/Ettore Gracis
CD 7 [44:18] Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809) Piano Concerto in D, Hob.XVIII:11
Piano Concerto in G, Hob.XVIII:4
Zurich Chamber Orchestra/Edmond de Stoutz
CD 8 [64:14] Robert SCHUMANN Carnaval (recorded in Thun, 1975)
Album für die Jugend (extracts)
Faschingsschwank aus Wien (extracts)
CD 9 [62:25] Robert SCHUMANN Piano Concerto in A minor (Milan, 1943) Edvard GRIEG Piano Concerto in A minor
Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala di Milano/Alceo Galliera
CD 10 [36:04] Edvard GRIEG
Lyric Piece Op. 43, No. 5 Johann Sebastian BACH Italian Concerto Pellegrino TOMEONI (1726-1816) Allegro Domenico SCARLATTI Sonatas Kk 96 & Kk 27 Frederic CHOPIN Berceuse
Mazurka Op. 33 No. 4
CD 11 [56:23] Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat 'Emperor’ Franz Joseph HAYDN Piano Concerto in D, Hob.XVIII:11
Italian Radio Symphony Orchestra Rome/Massimo Freccia (Beethoven)
Italian Radio Symphony Orchestra Turin/Mario Rossi (Haydn)
rec. live 1960 (Beethoven); 1959 (Haydn)
CD12 [48:09] Robert SCHUMANN
Piano Concerto in A minor Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat
Italian Radio Symphony Orchestra Rome/Gianandrea Gavazzeni (Schumann)
Italian Radio Symphony Orchestra Turin/Rafael Kubelik (Liszt)
rec. live, 1962 (Schumann); 1961 (Liszt)
CD 13 [48:15] Claude DEBUSSY
Images I & II
rec. 1963 (Turin)