Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in G (1931) [21:51]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor op. 40 (1927) [24:33]
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Ettore Gracis
rec. 7-8, 10 March 1957, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London. ADD
WARNER CLASSICS 2435 672382 [46:34]
This disc appears again, this time courtesy of Warner Classics in its lower-mid price Originals line. It's a known and even venerated quantity. Over the years the coupling has clocked up some mileage having been brought out in every medium. A handsome return must have been made on EMI's initial outlay some six decades ago. It was first issued on LP in 1958 and re-surfaced in that medium in 1974. I am sure it will continue to reappear at least once every time a new reproducing technology is ushered in.
The last time we saw this particular coupling on CD it came under the banner of EMI Classics' Great Recordings of the Century (GROC) label (CDM 5 67238 2) in 2000 at which time it was reviewed by Ian Lace. There's no review onsite of the 2010 reissue when, as part of its EMI Masters marque, EMI Classics added to these two concertos Michelangeli's Haydn Keyboard Concerto No. 11 with Das Zürcher Kammerorchester conducted by Edmond de Stoutz (0852802). That addition - even if bizarre in repertoire terms - helped overcome a problem that Warner have now unashamedly embraced again: the Ravel and the Rachmaninov produce a compact disc of only 47 minutes. That sort of timing was fine for an LP, at least in the 1950s and 1960s, but will now make most collectors blanch.
These are however superb performances and recordings - with only a modest allowance being made for their age. The GROC re-mastering in 2000 seemingly enhanced the results greatly with reduced analogue hiss yet plenty of natural high-end clarity. The apex of excellence in the Ravel is to be found in its Satie-esque time-stilling Adagio assai. Michelangeli's control and fixity of purpose in this movement is extraordinary. The outer movements have explosive Stravinskian brilliance. I discussed this disc with John Quinn and I quote him here because his words add another dimension of appreciation: "I remember vividly buying this [coupling] as an LP and later as a CD. You’re right to single out the slow movement in the Ravel but there’s another passage which, for me, has always made this recording special. No one in my experience has ever articulated so beautifully and so seamlessly the passage in the first movement where the piano plays the theme all in trills. With Michelangeli it’s just magical."
The Rachmaninov, dating from four years before the Ravel, is the version which served as my introduction to the work: via a BBC Radio 3 broadcast which I taped. It sounds now as well as it has ever sounded. This is a work of episodes of impulsive excitement and romantic endeavour. Michelangeli (1920-1995) is all emphatic tempest and delicate poetry. Gracis brings special tenderness to the orchestra in the middle movement. The whole work must have been very unfamiliar to the Philharmonia in 1958 when Rachmaninov was being sneeringly written off by the great and the good. This does not show in the Philharmonia's playing. Outstanding though this is, I would not want to be without Earl Wild (Chandos) or John Lill (Nimbus) in this work. If ever you have the appetite for a really red-blooded version try to hear Nikolai Petrov with Rozhdestvensky conducting the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra (Melodiya MEL CD 10 02128). It dates from 1965.
Apart from those two CD reissues this coupling has also appeared in a 4CD Icon boxed set: "Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli: The Master Pianist" Warner/EMI Classics 2060052. As it happens, Warner have only just issued a whopping 14 CD Michelangeli box under 'The Complete Warner Recordings' banner on 2564615488 and the Ravel/Rachmaninov appears there as well. The Rachmaninov was picked up by Alto with Richter's Second Piano Concerto under Wislocki and that disc was then built into Alto's Rachmaninov box.
The liner-note for the new Warner disc is the same seigneurial essay by Bryce Morrison that we had for the GROC reissue in 2000. It's well worth reading.
Ettore Gracis made some other recordings including a Mozart Piano Concerto K450 with Michelangeli but none have kept his name in currency as well much as this.
These are classic versions and they still have plenty going for them.
Previous review (EMI): Ian Lace