> Michelangeli plays Beethoven, Debussy and Ravel [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Michelangeli plays Beethoven, Debussy and Ravel
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827):
Piano Sonata No 12 in A flat major, Op. 26 [19.13]
Piano Sonata No 4 in E flat major, Op. 7 [29.44]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918):
Hommage à Rameau [6.53]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937):
Gaspard de la nuit [21.58]
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano)
Recorded at: Royal Festival Hall, London, 13 April 1982 (Beethoven, Debussy); BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London, 30 June 1959 (Ravel)
BBC Legends BBCL 4064-2 [78.26]


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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 me.

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 performances.

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 preparation.

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 finish.

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 seriously.

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.

Strongly recommended.

John Quinn

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