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Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli: The Vatican Recordings
CD 1 [53:53]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Images I [15:33], Images II [14:00]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Gaspard de la Nuit [24:14]
Recorded in the Sala Nervi of the Vatican, 13.06.1987
CD 2 [58:10]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Andante spianato et Grand Polonaise op.22 [15:18]

Préludes, Book I [42:46]
Recorded in the Sala Nervi of the Vatican, 13.6.1987 (Chopin), 29.4.1977 (Debussy)
CD 3 [64:36]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Concerto no.5 in E flat op.73 Ė "Emperor" [37:09]*, Piano Sonata in C op.2/3 [27:24]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI/Massimo Freccia*
Recorded in the Sala della Benedizione of the Vatican, 28.4.1960 (concerto) and the Sala Nervi of the Vatican, 13.6.1987 (sonata)
CD 4 [47:28]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Piano Concerto in A minor op.54 [29:48]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Totentanz [17:38]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI/Gianandrea Gavazzeni
Recorded in the Sala della Benedizione of the Vatican, 28.4.1962, in the presence of His Holiness Pope John XXIII
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano)
Orchestras, conductors, dates, locations and CD timings as above
MEMORIA ABM DIVOX 999001 [4 CDs: 53:53 + 58:10 + 64:36 + 47:28]
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As a nice sort of tit-for-tat for all those records emanating from the UK with notes in English only, this one has notes only in French. It is, in fact, the authorized French edition of Michelangeliís Vatican recordings.

Late in life, in 1991, the Maestro requested tapes of all the concertos and recitals he had played in the Vatican. They were delivered the following year and here they are, duly mastered and in general well engineered, though with a consistent tendency over the years to zoom in a bit too closely to a pianist whose sound had a massive carrying power anyway. All these performances have long been circulating on various labels, presumably taken off the air, and indeed I have home tapings myself of the Beethoven and Schumann concertos. Those who have been making do with this sort of thing can be assured that this official release is firmer in profile and brighter in sound. It is a pity that the booklet opts for pseudo-philosophical waffle rather than nitty-gritty. It would have been nice to have known more of the background to these performances, and also why it is that they are not complete. The recital containing the Debussy Preludes began with Brahmsís Four Ballades op.10, which have been issued by Hermitage, and a Mozart K.466 given in the Vatican in 1966 has also been circulated. Were the original tapes missing or damaged? Did the Maestro not wish those particular performances to be released?

I must say I am surprised that DG, for whom Michelangeli recorded during his last two decades, did not move heaven and earth to obtain rights over these recordings, especially considering the fact that only the Beethoven concerto and all the Debussy works actually duplicate repertoire he recorded for them. However, a bit of browsing on the internet reveals that alternative versions of all the works here have been issued, how officially and how tolerable to the ear I cannot say. The "Emperor" is one of at least ten surviving versions dating from 1947 (Turin/Rossi) to 1982 (LSO/Celibidache) and including collaborations with Smetacek (1957), Steinberg (1966) and two others with Celibidache (1969 and 1974) as well as the famous studio recording with Giulini (1979). The op.2/3 sonata is the latest of at least eight, beginning with a studio performance recorded in Milan in 1941.

The Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise was not among the works included in Michelangeliís famous DG Chopin recital, but it is the penultimate of at least eight surviving versions, ranging from 1949 (Buenos Aires) to 1990 (London). Michelangeliís DG recordings of Debussy are legendary; his 1971 recording of the two books of Images was preceded by tapings in Turin (1962) and Helsinki (1969) and followed by performances in Berne (1975), the present one of 1987 and his final concert, entirely dedicated to Debussy, in Hamburg (1993). Performances of individual numbers from the Images go back to a 1941 performance of Reflet dans líeau (Milan). The Vatican version of the first book of Préludes, on the other hand, seems to be the earliest, predating the DG recording by about a year. Later tapings exist from 1982 (London, now on BBC Legends) and that final recital of 1993. Gaspard de la Nuit never got a studio recording and the Vatican performance marks a late return to a work of which four tapings exist between 1959 (London) and 1969 (Helsinki).

The Liszt Totentanz was virtually a one-off; a performance under Kubelik in Turin the previous year seems to be the only other. Whereas the Schumann concerto exists in at least ten versions, beginning with the 1942 Telefunken recording (La Scala/Pedrotti), followed by live tapings with Mitropoulos (New York 1948), Gracis (Turin 1955), Rowicki (Warsaw 1955), Rossi (Turin 1955), Scherchen (Lugano 1956, two performances), the present one with Gavazzeni and two with Celibidache (Stockholm 1967, Munich 1992).

But what do these Vatican performances actually have to offer?

The 1987 recital was a gruellingly long programme Ė 96:34 of music, so with interval and pauses (and encores?) it must have lasted two hours at least. Not the least of the many mysteries surrounding this pianist regards the Beethoven sonatas he chose to play Ė op.2/3, many times, op.7, op.22, op.26 and op.111. The first three of these tend to be the preserve of pianists who go in for complete Beethoven cycles since they have the reputation of finding Beethoven at his most grandly monumental, his most formal, but his least human. I wonder what drew Michelangeli to them? Not, on this showing, a conviction that the usual opinion is mistaken, nor a burning zeal to reinstate them in popular estimation. There is plenty of grandeur, with firmly sculpted lines and full textures, but the monument seems illuminated by the pianistís intellectual curiosity rather than any great warmth or humanity. At this stage his technical command occasionally faltered and those who find themselves in a similar predicament may like to note how he cunningly makes a wrong note sound like an intentional appoggiatura Ė a rare instance of spontaneity.

The outstanding moment of this recital is the Chopin. Michelangeliís patrician coolness and fine sculpting of line are predictably just what the Andante spianato needs, but the Polonaise is also a splendid display, the pianistís rigorous control a genuine alternative to Rubinsteinís joi de vivre.

Of the Debussy, I enjoyed the first book of Images much more than the second. Michelangeliís spotlighting of every note brings Reflets dans líeau closer to the sparkle of Ravelís Jeux díeau than do more distanced performance in the Gieseking tradition but it is evocative in its own way, while the abstract titles of the other two pieces (Hommage à Rameau and Mouvement) mean that the pianistís concentration on the intellectual construction of the music does not collide with any poetic images which Debussyís titles might arouse. In the second book, Iím afraid I found his manner quite at odds with the music. The mechanism of Debussyís bells may be investigated with fascinating precision, but half-heard through the leaves they are not, the "temple that was" seems caught in the glare of a spotlight rather than pallid moonbeams and the goldfish, if not quite leviathans, have swollen at least to dolphin-size.

Such an approach might seem more suited to the meticulous Ravel yet, while admiring the technique of a pianist who can despatch Ondine with the clarity of a Scarlatti sonata, who can ensure that the bell tolls implacably through the multi-tiered textures of Le Gibet and who is so totally unconcerned by the hair-raising difficulty of Scarbo, I have to say the first seems singularly unseductive, the second four-square and the third curiously stolid. A more distanced recording might have given a different impression, but I get the idea that at this late stage in his career Michelangeliís obsession with the perfection of every single note was getting in the way of long-term communication.

Turning from his 1987 Beethoven to the concerto recorded in 1960 one immediately has the impression of a more imperious overall sweep and the opening bars promise an outstanding performance. Following this, Toscanini-protégé Massimo Freccia, the orchestraís principal conductor at the time, leads a brilliant, fiery, straight-down-the-line exposition which, if orchestrally fallible in places (very flabby horns), does nothing to disappoint our expectation. Then Michelangeli enters and promptly slows the tempo down. In spite of many splendid moments he is generally too wayward to create a convincingly Beethovenian effect and, with Freccia returning to his original tempo whenever he can, our discomfort is complete. The best thing is the slow movement, where the pianistís fine sculpting of the line is again in evidence. In the finale he himself sets off at a brisk tempo which he slows down considerably at several points; so perhaps he wanted Freccia to conduct the first movement in that way. The many magisterial moments of this performance tend to remain in the mind, however; though far from ideal, it is difficult to set it completely aside. This, by the way, is the recording famous for the violent Roman thunderstorm heard to break out in the quiet wind-down before the final coda Ė another recording with the same orchestra and conductor, given as part of the RAIís concert season a couple of weeks later, presumably without the thunder-clap, has also been circulated.

A comparison of the 1987 Debussy with the Préludes of ten years earlier again comes out in favour of the earlier Michelangeli. Overall, the impression is that the music is illuminated rather than spotlit. If Puck is an oddly serious fellow the Girl with the Flaxen Hair, while unremittingly full-toned, has warmth and surprising spontaneity and the Interrupted Serenade is a miracle of subtle timing and tonal shading Ė a wonderful performance. The same sense of humour is not quite caught in "Minstrels" but overall this is a performance of the first book to be set alongside other classic accounts in the catalogue, including Michelangeliís own.

The real treasure of the set, though, is the Liszt, a scorching, demoniac performance to rank with the greatest Liszt performances on disc, and with the pianistís own greatest concerto recordings, such as the Ravel/Rachmaninov coupling. Perhaps the slightly earlier performance under Kubelik was a shade more volatile still Ė Kubelik was in sizzling form, though Gavazzeni provides plenty of vitality here Ė but, unless this should also achieve an official release based on the master tapes, the present version is much better as a recording.

Gavazzeni could be an unpredictable Schumann conductor Ė his fourth symphony combined some of the fastest tempi Iíve ever heard with some of the slowest Ė and his playing of the opening wind chorale sounds strangely disengaged. But thereafter he provides warm and punctual support for a performance which alternates natural romantic phrasing with the odd manhandling of certain phrases. There is a genuine overall surge Ė to which the conductor certainly contributes Ė that overrides the occasional excessive concentration on single phrases.

The Schumann and Liszt are separated by almost a minute of surreptitious tuning and less surreptitious coughing. I canít begin to think why they were thought of sufficient historic moment to be preserved. Is there reason to believe that some of the coughs emanate from His Holiness Pope John XXIII himself? Are they supposed to have therapeutic value? My own seasonal ailments continued unabated, but then Iím not very receptive to that sort of thing.

When all is said and done, Michelangeli is Michelangeli, and since he chose to record less and less, any issue in adequate sound is to be accepted gratefully for the light it throws on an enigmatic musician. It is not, I think, an issue for the casual collector.

Christopher Howell




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