The BBC Legends series, launched in 1998, has already
produced many recordings of great interest and artistic merit. This
disc, devoted to performances by Michelangeli, is the one hundredth
release in the series and is a most distinguished "centenary issue".
Most of the discís contents come from a 1982 Festival
Hall recital. The accompanying notes by William Robson relate that Michelangeli
was unwell at the time of the concert. However, though he was infamous
for canceling appearances he pressed ahead with this recital, even though
he was running a temperature of 100 degrees! How even a great virtuoso
could turn in performances such as these when feeling unwell is beyond
The two Beethoven sonatas show Michelangeli to be a
vivid, strong interpreter of this repertoire. He makes much of the accents
and sforzandi in which Beethovenís music abounds. These interpretations
may not be to everyoneís taste but they are certainly compelling. In
Op. 26 Michelangeli does rather stress the tempestuous side of Beethovenís
nature. This approach works best of all in the third movement, a gaunt
funeral march which is here delivered with gripping intensity and a
touch of hauteur. This is not to say that the first movement, an andante
and variations, is not well played. This more lyrical movement benefits
from some beautiful shading and felicitous phrasing. The succinct finale
is played with great élan, every accent giving a kick to the
rhythm, as Beethoven intended.
The performance of Op. 7 is just as intense. For me
the highlight is the slow movement. Here the range of tonal colours
which Michelangeli brings to the music is quite marvellous. He gives
a commanding, eloquent performance of this movement. It is interesting
to read in the notes that his pianos were prepared scrupulously so that
he could play them with a very light touch. This must have contributed
to the wonderful soft playing which is in evidence on many occasions
during this programme but the light touch in no way inhibited the delivery
of the most powerful passages. Nor is there any shortage of drive and
impetus in the faster music. Michelangeli plays the rondo finale with
great vigour and the third movement with drive and dramatic energy.
The recording conveys very well the impact of both of these Beethoven
From the same recital we get a brief example of Michelangeliís
consummate skill as an interpreter of Debussy. This music demands a
completely different tonal palette and touch (the notes imply two different
Steinways may have been used for this concert). The playing here is
wonderfully atmospheric and controlled. It sounds so free and rhapsodic
but, of course, this is an example of art concealing art; a performance
such as this could only have been realized after long and scrupulous
The Ravel, which completes the disc, comes from a much
earlier recital but here, too, there is an abundance of keyboard wizardry
to savour. Ondine shimmers and sparkles; a seductive and beguiling
performance from the hands which only a couple of years earlier produced
what I think is still, by some distance, the finest recording of the
Ravel G major Piano Concerto. By contrast, Le Gibet is utterly
spare and haunting; an evocation of a dreadful sight. The opening bars
of Scarbo are astonishingly atmospheric (as is the case when
the same material is reprised later in the piece). When Scarbo himself
appears Michelangeli paints a vivid portrait of sneering malevolence.
In summary, this is a stunning ĎGaspardí, one to rank with the very
best versions available and of the greatest intensity from start to
The sound in the Ravel is, inevitably, somewhat shallow
by comparison with the 1982 RFH sound. However, it is completely acceptable.
The Festival Hall audience contains some bronchial individuals but so
magnetic is the playing that I donít think listeners will be distracted
Not everyone will warm to Michelangeliís way with Beethoven.
However, I think all the performances on this CD are of the highest
stature. Indeed, they are touched by greatness. Here we have marvellous,
compelling performances by a great artist caught on the wing. All the
playing is enormously stimulating and thought provoking. And, in the
case of the Ravel, the CD contains one towering achievement.
This fine disc is a fitting milestone for the BBC Legends
series. I look forward to the next 100 discs Ė and beyond.