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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937) Piano Concerto in G Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor   Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano) The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Ettore Gracis  Recording made in March 1957  EMI (Great Recordings of the Century Series) CDM 5 67238 2 [46:34]

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'One of the finest concerto records ever made. Marvellous piano playing…this disc will give you enormous delight.'

- Original Gramophone review.

'Great excitement when this album arrived! Straight away, it was hastened to my CD player, for this is one of the true piano classics of the gramophone. I checked the digital transfer sound quality against my treasured old 1958 LP and was assured: more detail and, of course, full security against those devastating old clicks and plops. I say treasured LP because it has always been one of the pearls of my collection. I checked my log (I habitually wrote the dates when I played my LPs on the inner sleeves) and noticed I had played this record more often than practically any other I owned.

Michelangeli made too few recordings. He was meticulous in preparation, and his fabulous technique and elegant playing was the result of years of intense and obsessive work. Listening to him playing these two concerti, one marvels at his lucidity and finesse, the command of dynamics, emphasis and accent, so that every note and chord has seemingly the exact expressive weight - finely calculated yet sounding so natural. Then there is the blissful phrasing and a musical understatement that is all the more emotionally telling.

Rachmaninov's underrated 4th Piano Concerto, has always been considered something of an ugly duckling. True, this concerto is difficult; it demands commitment from both player and listener; nevertheless, it is a very considerable achievement; and, besides, it certainly does not lack charm. Yes, it is spiky and has, perhaps, more than its fair share of gloom; as well as Rachmaninov's usual bombast and sweeping romanticism. (One can detect a fist-shaking defiance against the new order as represented by Prokofiev for example,) But Michelangeli's great conviction and sensitivity coupled with Ettore Gracis' first rate accompaniment prove, more than any other recorded performance that I know of this work, that it is every bit as good as, and even an advance on Rachmaninov's preceding three concerti. Michelangeli rated it highly and championed it. I agree with Bryce Morrison absolutely when he claims that not even the composer himself delivered such a dazzling performance as recorded here. Michelangeli beautifully, sensitively articulates Rachmaninov's sense of loss and despair, and yearning but in contrast in the more bombastic passages he and Gracis deliver a reading of white-hot excitement - what power, what authority, what conviction! The second movement with its droopy 'Three Blind Mice'-like theme drew scorn from the critics and this inevitably held up the progress of the work. Yet stripped of this connotation, Michelangeli convinces us of its true stature, eloquently showing us all its passion and its fist-shaking defiance as well as its mournful dejection.

If you still need to be convinced about Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto, then this is the recording you should turn to.

Often a reviewer's life is made easy, yet paradoxically more difficult, when he reads in a CD booklet notes exactly what he wants to say about a performance, so it was when I read Bryce Morrison's eloquent comments about this Michelangeli reading. Morrison says, "In Ravel's opening Allegramente, with its ultra-Gallic bustle and chatter, Michelangeli ensures that nothing is merely rushed, hectic or wild… In the Meno vivo second subject, too, with its alternations of fierceness and languor, Michelangeli's rubato, his musical breathing, is peculiarly his own, at once cool and supple. And in the same movement's cadenza the chains of trills are given with an unparalleled evenness, a gliding from one to the other that forbids even a hint of joins or links; one of those sublime moments where technique and musicianship are indivisible." Yes, indeed, here is musicianship of the highest order: tiger-like power hand-in-hand with silken finesse. Gracis' contribution is equally impressive; vibrant colours and such energy - and those deliciously shaped and balanced harp figurations!

Michelangeli unhurriedly probes, that much deeper, the heartfelt stillness of the opening cadenza of the central adagio - 'one of the most touching melodies to come from the human heart' (to quote Marguerite Long). Michelangeli reveals more of its pathos and one gets the impression of a disappointed yearning mixed with a struggling yet quiet defiance. The whole movement is perfection - total bliss.

The quirky, jazzy glitter of the breathless final Allegro vivace has Michelangeli showering Ravel's rapid-fire and densely packed toccata-like repeated notes with easy precision but devastating effect.

Don't hesitate, snap this one up


Ian Lace

Technical appraisal by David Dyer

These early stereo recordings have always been held generally in extremely high regard artistically but, for me, in previous incarnations on CD the high level of hiss has rendered the listening experience unenjoyable. The remastering perfomed by EMI in this latest version clearly represents a major step forward and the overall sound quality is now quite good, however I personally still find even the reduced level of hiss unwelcome. My advice is sample first before purchasing.

Sound Rating

Equipment used: Proceed CD transport. Chord DSC 1100 DAC. SPA3200 Pre-amp. SPM 1200B Power amp.  B&W Nautilus 802 Speakers.

 Details of the entire Great Recordings of the Century series may be seen here 


Ian Lace

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