In 1939 Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995) landed first prize at the Geneva Piano Competition. This triumphant victory catapulted the Italian onto the international stage as one of the foremost exponents of the keyboard. Italian Radio (EIAR), at the time, embraced this success of their compatriot and began to broadcast him for the pleasure of Italian audiences. Many of the early broadcasts have sadly been lost, but what does remain includes some unusual items that the pianist never took into his repertoire. They include Absil’s Concerto Op. 30 (1940), Beethoven’s Moonlight
Sonata, Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse
(1942) and even Balakirev’s Islamey
(1941) – tantalizing morsels indeed.
For a pianist of such stature, his repertoire is relatively small. His perfectionism, which bordered on the obsessive, led him to home in on certain repertoire and fine tune it. He was a slave to detail. His forays into the recording studio were few and his commercial recorded legacy is limited. Fortunately for us his discography is bulked out with unauthorized and authorized live performances, some of which have had several incarnations on disc.
In 1945 EIAR became RAI. The RAI Orchestra of Turin went on tour with Michelangeli in 1947 to Great Britain. Mario Rossi, one of the orchestra’s regular conductors, went with them. In collaboration with the BBC they broadcast many of the concerts during this visit. The opening concert of the tour involved a performance of the Beethoven Emperor Concerto
with Rossi conducting. This was to be the first in a series of five recordings of this concerto that the pianist made, throughout his career, with this orchestra. Three have seen the light of day on CD, but two have remained unissued – one from 5 April 1957, and the one under review here from 12 December 1959, under Italian conductor Massimo Freccia, another regular with this orchestra. It has now been released by Tahra after lying dormant in the RAI archives since that first broadcast.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73 is the concerto Michelangeli played more than any other. Between 1939 and 1987 he performed it more than one hundred times. There are a dozen or so performances in his discography now available, including one commercial recording he made with the Wiener Symphoniker under Carlo Maria Giulini in Vienna February 1979 (DG 419 249-2). Who knows, there may be other live airings languishing in the vaults somewhere around the world.
This Beethoven performance under Freccia, the RAI orchestra principal at the time, is magisterial, and truly lives up to its name Emperor
. Characterized by epic grandeur, it is muscular yet sensitive to dynamics and phrasing. Michelangeli’s glacial technical perfection is evident, yet the performance is on occasion not without its wayward rubato and tempo relations. There’s no sentimentality in the slow movement — emotions are suitable reined in. The conductor is a sympathetic partner. Audience noise in minimal and not at all intrusive. I compared this with the performance given at the Vatican in the presence of His Holiness Pope John XXIII from a year later with the same forces and Freccia conducting (28 April 1960). The two interpretations are very similar but the sound is less bright and softer-grained from St. Peter’s. The last movement is famously interrupted with a flash of lightning and a roll of thunder – a sign of divine approval, we must hope.
From six days later (18 December 1959) comes the Haydn D major concerto, this time with Mario Rossi conducting. Compelling and rhythmically buoyant, this live broadcast has seen the light of day on other labels but provides a fitting companion to the Beethoven. Perhaps it is significant that Martha Argerich, a one time pupil of Michelangeli, took this concerto into her repertoire and made a commercial recording of it with DG.
Sound quality is more than acceptable in both performances. Booklet notes are in French and English. The Beethoven is a valuable addition to the pianist’s discography.
Masterwork Index: Beethoven
piano concerto 5