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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)/Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924)
Chaconne from Partita No 2 in D minor, BWV1004 [14:07]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.3 in C, Op.2 No.3 [25:14]
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano)
rec. live, 7 August 1965, Great Hall of the Mozarteum, Salzburg
ORFEO C943171B [40:04]

If the paltry 40 minute duration of this disc causes you some concern, fear not. There is a good reason. This release from Orfeo, in their Salzburger Festspieldokumente series, offers the first half of Michelangeli’s sole appearance at the Salzburg Festival. The second half consisted of works by Debussy, Chopin and Scarlatti and for some reason, which isn’t elucidated in the booklet notes, the Italian pianist withheld permission for it to be broadcast or recorded. It’s hardly surprising, as he was an enigmatic character given to cancelling almost as many performances as he gave. Highly sensitive and temperamental, in 1986 he pulled out of a concert in Zurich because the piano’s tuning had been adversely affected by fresh air that had been let into the hall. His concert repertoire ranged from Scarlatti to Ravel, but was small. He committed little to disc.

Of the two works featured here, the Bach/Busoni was recorded commercially by HMV at Abbey Road in 1948. There are three live versions listed in his discography, recorded between 1955-1988. The Beethoven Op. 2, No. 3 exists in an HMV recording set down in Milan in 1941. The same listing charts eight live performances, taped between 1949-1987. It’s amazing to think that he only had five Beethoven piano sonatas in his active repertoire, though no doubt he performed them all privately.

There was always a close affinity between Michelangeli and Busoni's transcription of Bach’s D minor Chaconne. One reason why he was drawn to the work is that, as a small boy, he had wanted to become a violinist. He only switched to piano, apparently, because of an illness. I’ve always enjoyed his 1948 studio account, and this live version is no less compelling. It is magisterial, nicely paced and sensitive to dynamic gradients. He has a large-scale vision of the piece and carries the listener along with a cumulative momentum. I love the way he contrasts the declamatory elements with the more serene and poetic sections. All of this is underpinned by an instinctive rhythmic freedom.

Michelangeli’s stunning technical arsenal serves the Beethoven Sonata well. In the outer movements he goes for broke, effortlessly surmounting all the virtuosic obstacles that lie within the score. The Adagio slow movement I particularly like, for its eloquence and sober approach. The pearl-like semiquaver-runs in the finale sparkle like jewels, flawlessly smooth like polished gems. Listening to this performance in parallel with the 1941 Milan account, I was struck by how little his conception of the work had changed or evolved over the intervening years. Regrettably, he omits the first movement exposition repeat in the earlier reading, probably to accommodate the timing restrictions of 78s, but the finale is even more brisk - a stunning achievement in dexterity and technical perfection.

Given the date and provenance of this recording, the sound quality stands up extremely well. For those who can tolerate dated sound, I would recommend the pianist’s studio accounts of both of these works (EMI Référence CDH 7644902). They are desert island recordings for me.

The meagre playing time of this production is more than compensated for by Michelangeli’s superb artistry and outstanding pianism. I’m more than grateful to Orfeo for issuing this valuable historical broadcast document, it’s certainly one to admire and treasure.

Stephen Greenbank



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