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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Sonata in B flat minor op.35 [26:39]; Ballade in G minor op.23 [09:23]; Andante spianato et Grande polonaise brillante op.22 [13:34]; Fantasia op.49 [13:29]; Waltz in A flat op.69/1 [04:34]; Waltz in A flat op.34/1 [05:53]; Waltz in E flat op. posth [03:11]; Scherzo no.2 in B flat minor op.31 [10:55]; Mazurka in A minor op.68/2 [03:22]; Mazurka in B minor op.33/4 [06:25]; Mazurka in D flat op.30/3 [03:36]; Berceuse in D flat op.57 [04:34]
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano)
rec. Turin, 1962, RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana
OPUS ARTE OA 0940 D [106:00]

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There is something utterly timeless about this. The setting itself, presumably one of RAI’s Turin studios, is so simple (at Michelangeli’s own request) that its bare white walls could as easily be the inside of a space capsule. Long shots are out so we never get to see if there is an auditorium behind the camera – the mind supposes just another white wall. If there is an auditorium there is certainly no public in it. So just a confined, ascetic space with a piano – also timeless for no maker’s name appears on it, only a mysterious emblem – a sturdy old-fashioned microphone and our pianist. Here again our sense of reality is challenged for he is playing in full evening dress though no one is there to see him.

Even the occasional wonkiness of the forty-year-old picture contributes to the suggestion that we may as well be receiving our images from the confines of the universe as from a familiar European city. This in its turn gives Michelangeli himself a timeless appearance; he was by then 42 and presumably in real life his face was beginning to bear the odd wrinkle attendant upon early middle age. Filtered through technology unable to register the finer details, he could possibly be much older than his years, but he could equally have found the elixir of youth, for there is something of the callow young student, Goethe’s Werther maybe, to his body frame.

His actual control over the instrument is so superhuman as to suggest extra-terrestrial intervention. He himself seems incredibly remote, his face expressionless except for a very occasional chewing of his moustache, suggesting (I suppose) some slight reservation over what he has just done – not a reservation the rest of us are likely to share. Of all the pianists I have seen live or on video, only Rubinstein and Horowitz have provided equally total demonstration of the fact that the fingers are the ONLY contact with the instrument and that ONLY this contact creates the sound and the performance. No other body movement is allowed which does not directly assist the fingers. Of course his arms move when despatching chains of octaves or when leaping up and down the keyboard at the climax of the second Scherzo – but the fingers always lead the way.

Michelangeli also challenges our sense of reality by virtually playing the almost two-hour programme at one stretch. There are, it is true, a few breaks in the picture between items (without counting them, I’d say not more than about four), but more often the cameras remain trained on him as he finishes a piece, slowly withdraws his hands, collects his thoughts, occasionally reaches for a handkerchief hidden inside the piano, wipes his brow or (more often) the keyboard, and then gets on with the next piece.

And what playing! Earlier on, in the Sonata mainly, I felt that his insistence on a finely sculpted line, on playing even pianissimos through the public address system as it were, could have its downside (as it also could with Richter), but as the programme proceeds he seems increasingly to be communing only with himself. Some of his rubato is extreme yet it is wedded to such a perfect sense of rhythmic continuity that it always works. How typical of this enigmatic artist that his slender repertoire (virtually all the Chopin he ever played is here) should contain one of the posthumous Waltzes that normally only gets played by pianists booked to record the lot, and that he should make it sound an absolute masterpiece. From the Waltzes onwards – but above all in the Mazurkas and the Berceuse – we have some of the supreme performances of these particular works ever recorded. This film may not really be reaching us from the outer reaches of the universe, but it deserves to be heard and seen out there.

A curious testimony to human fallibility has seeped its way into the heart of the enterprise. I am not referring to the clanginess of the fortes, which could have been toned down a bit (as RAI themselves seem to have done for radio broadcasts of this material), or to the odd slip in Misha Donat’s basically fine essay – he states that Michelangeli’s recorded repertoire included the Liszt Second Concerto, but it was actually the First (at least four versions exist). These are ephemeral matters that can be corrected in later reissues. No, the very fabric of the recording is flawed for, sometimes barely perceptible, sometimes irritatingly obtrusive, interference from a nearby radio station can be heard practically throughout. At first I supposed this DVD derived from somebody’s home-taping on a bad day for reception, but no, there is the RAI-TRADE emblem to prove that this is an “official” release mastered from the original tapes. The second possibility is that the studio and/or the microphone were inadequately screened against such interference. It seems barely credible that such a thing could happen with a major European broadcasting company, but as the Italians will tell you, with “Mamma RAI” anything is possible. At this point I recalled that I had an off-the-air tape of a radio broadcast of what must be the same performance of the Sonata, and it is in fact bedevilled by disturbance which I had always supposed to be a factor of reception on the day I recorded it. A little investigation proved that the disturbance is in fact the SAME as on the DVD so, alas, it is there on the master tape and nothing can be done about it without wiping half the piano sound off in the process. I’m glad Opus Arte didn’t try to do that, but I think they might have added a technical warning.

All the same, this DVD offers a quite extraordinary experience, something timeless that goes beyond the confines of Chopin and Michelangeli themselves to touch the universal. A musical DVD collection that misses out on it will be incomplete. Also in 1962, Michelangeli recorded programmes of Beethoven/Scarlatti/Galuppi and Debussy for RAI television – Opus Arte are issuing these too.

Christopher Howell


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