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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Gaspard de la Nuit [19:54]
Piano Concerto in G [21:55]
Valses Nobles et Sentimentales [17:00]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Children’s Corner [14:06]
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Ettore Gracis
rec. live: February 12, 1952, location unknown (Valses), London 1958 (concerto), May 22, 1960, location unknown (Gaspard), June 3, 1960, Prague (Debussy)
PRAGA PRD/DSD 350 091 [72:54]

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli at his best can be unmistakable: the opening bars of “Ondine,” in this 1960 recording of Gaspard de la Nuit, are a great example. Such speed but such accuracy! More or less any pianist who plays this movement in less than six minutes today will fudge or smear or simplify the insanely tricky accompaniment in these first bars. They’re a pianist’s hell; one can hear virtuosos like Freddy Kempf (BIS) utterly humiliated by them. And yet Michelangeli speeds through them with a precision and casualness that, taken together, explain his legend.
It’s a great Gaspard all the way. Le Gibet’s tolling bells are suitably gloomy and terrifying, and Scarbo, with a teasing pause here, an extra emphasis there, and laser precision throughout, is outstanding too. This is great playing. It’s his fastest Gaspard that I’ve heard or heard about and it’s live.
Not everything on the CD can rise to that level, but it can come close. Debussy’s Children’s Corner is just a little messy in comparison, and “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” very matter-of-fact, but the Ravel concerto is a harmonious union with a conductor, Ettore Gracis, who shares Michelangeli’s attention for detail. It’s an exquisite performance of the concerto, but you probably know that already: it has long been a staple on its original record label, EMI Classics.
Recording quality varies. Obviously EMI was doing pretty well with the concerto, given that this was 1958, but the Debussy in 1960 is rather muffled - partly because of sound reduction software, I suspect. The Ravel Valses are a bit distant and echo-y, but Gaspard’s soft fog of tape hiss and glowingly bright piano sound rather suit its moonlit landscape.
I’m keeping this for the Gaspard. It’s worth it for that, but the rare Ravel Valses and Debussy may add to the appeal, even if you already have this legendary reading of the concerto. You should only hesitate if you have issues with the noise-reduction technology in fashion with re-mastering engineers these days.
Brian Reinhart