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Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Sonatas – No. 12 in A flat, Op. 26 (1801); No. 11 in B flat, Op. 22 (1800).
Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)

Piano Sonata in A minor, D537 (1817).
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Ballades, Op. 10 (1854).
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano).
Rec. live at the RTSI Auditorium, Lugano, Switzerland on April 7th, 1981.
EUROARTS/TDK DV-MPSR [102’00]

 

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, Horowitz-like.

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.

Michelangeli’s reaction 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 as Schubertian.

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.

Colin Clarke

 



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