The first time one
watches this DVD of Michelangeli in
concert (also released in Japan on BMG
BVBC31007) the question that keeps on
cropping up is ‘Does he ever miss?’
He does, but very rarely indeed. This
is an invaluable document of a great
artist and the opportunity to watch
him in close-up is not to be missed;
if only to know that there is some emotion
that – however minuscule - registers
across his mask-like features and that,
yes, even Michelangeli sweats.
The recital begins
with two Beethoven Sonatas (Michelangeli
only played selected ones - publicly,
at least). The A flat begins with a
set of variations. How magically Michelangeli
characterises them on his superbly tuned
and toned instrument; the higher treble
register is a joy in itself. The various
variations are ‘announced’ on screen.
Of particular interest is the fourth,
which Michelangeli presents with a quasi-Webernian
sparseness. Interesting that here his
left hand does move away from the keyboard
for staccati. This is hardly Brendel-like
Haydnesque wit, but it is more than
expected from this source. More expected
is the brilliance of delineation of
voice-leading in the fifth variation
where Michelangeli also puts one in
mind of the textural crescendo of the
variations of Op. 109. Despite the occasional
smattering of literalism, this is a
performance to treasure.
The resolute Scherzo
shows how legato is the very basis for
his sound. The left-hand close-up will
make all aspiring pianists squirm with
jealousy; the nimbleness is quite remarkable.
True there could be more caprice here,
but Michelangeli is not known for his
cheeky-chappiness. He was happier in
movements like the Funeral March (on
the death of a Hero), if that is not
a contradiction in terms. Here this
music escapes the boundaries of ‘early
period’ Beethoven to emerge as a mercilessly
relentless, black picture of despair.
The sound is huge, the tremolandi
positively orchestral. There is more
jealousy-inducing pianism in the finale,
characterised by remarkable definition
stemming from immense finger-strength.
His disdain is also remarkable, though
– the way he puts his handkerchief up
to his face before the final chord is
over had me tutting as an automatic
reaction. The applause serves simultaneously
as a reminder that there was an audience;
they had listened in rapt silence.
The B flat Sonata,
Op. 22 is one of the more finicky sonatas.
Michelangeli despatches it with remarkable
facility. In addition, his right-hand
legato is positively liquid. Michelangeli’s
invocation of Haydn at the beginning
of the development is entirely apt.
The use of a glassy, Italianate sound
(not too far removed from that of Pollini)
leads to expert clarity. Interesting
how there is a hint of a smile in one
close-up – very, very fleeting, though!.
Interesting also to see his fourth and
fifth fingers retract then shoot out,
But it is the slow
movement that is hugely impressive.
Over a bed of left-hand chords, the
right-hand is supremely expressive,
the neighbour-notes bending under the
weight of the aching affekt.
True, Michelangeli does not do simplicity
so well (the Menuetto) but even here
there are moments of illumination –
the completely independent left-hand
in the Trio; the way he unashamedly
juxtaposes Trio with return of Menuetto
to stunning effect. The finale, however,
needs more grace and charm. Fortissimi
are dark and it has to be admitted that
as the movement progresses one gets
dragged into Michelangeli’s way of thinking.
Like all great artists, he can persuade
you that it can be no other way, at
least for the duration of the performance.
at the end of the performance is typical
– the smallest of smiles and a perfunctory
nod. The shots of the audience are worth
watching. Look out for the lady who
is caught clapping ever so politely,
sneaking in a look at her watch.
The Schubert Sonata
holds some surprises. The opening movement
is unexpectedly violent (fortissimi
are almost pounded out, martellato!)
and contrasts are large. Alas the music
refuses to smile under Michelangeli’s
fingers and throughout the pianist himself
carries the most nonchalant of looks.
One can certainly sit agape at the excellence
(nay, perfection) of Michelangeli’s
ornaments, yet there is something missing
– the something that marks this music
Of course, Michelangeli
recorded this Schubert sonata for Deutsche
Grammophon, as he did the Brahms Ballades
(also in 1981). Neither is this the
only Lugano performance of Michelangeli’s
Ballades to have been made available,
for there was an earlier one (May 21st,
1973) on Aura and Music & Arts (NB
not DVD though). Michelangeli’s reading
will bring few surprises in terms of
its terms of reference. No. 1 (‘Edward’)
is beautifully sculpted rather than
emoted. Michelangeli’s body is preternaturally
stationary, the massive sound coming
through his arms. And tonally there
are moments of magic – listen how the
perfect left-hand staccato triplets
contrast with a cloud of sound. Two
sole claps from the audience separate
the first two Ballades.
The Second (D major)
reveals Michelangeli’s sense of harmonic
colour and his dynamic range. No matter
how loudly he plays, he never breaks
the sound. Although it is true that
the spread chords could have had a greater
sense of Brahmsian innigkeit,
this is a remarkable achievement that
contrasts well with the unexpectedly
flighty Third Ballade, with its
highly developed sense of tone-colour.
The very projected
top voice and its much dreamier descent
that opens the final Ballade
initiates an experience that is purposefully
distanced (but has no less impact for
this). The close is typical Michelangeli
– the briefest of nods, then up, followed
by that echt-Michelangelian disdainful
nod in the direction of the audience.
All pianists should
hear this, see it and learn. The phenomenon
that was Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
was a one-off of genius. For those of
us not privileged to enjoy him live,
this DVD opens a window just the slightest
amount on a pianist-enigma whose mystique
remains ever fascinating.