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Beyond Perfection - The Pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
A film by Syrthos J. Dreher and Dag Freyer
NTSC, Video region O, Colour
German with subtitles in English, Italian, Korean, Japanese
C MAJOR DVD 755208 [79 mins]

Myth, enigma, unreachable and perfection are all words used to describe the Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995). This DVD aims to explore the impenetrable character of the pianist through the eyes of colleagues, friends and acquaintances. Whilst there’s film footage of the master at work, don’t expect too much of that. There’s a wonderful black and white excerpt of a Scarlatti Sonata from 1949, revealing stunning technical accomplishment, and snippets from the 1962 Chopin and Debussy films which have done the rounds before. No, this wonderful film attempts to get under the pianist’s skin with the objective of revealing what made this complex character tick.

The thread running through the film is Michelangeli’s rehabilitation and return to the concert stage after suffering a serious heart attack during a concert in Bordeaux in 1988, which necessitated a seven hour-long operation to save his life. Cord Garben, central to the story, is a pianist, conductor and producer of the pianist’s DG recordings as well as being a close confidant. In 1992, the pianist expressed a desire to perform the Ravel Piano Concerto on four consecutive evenings, one of which was to be recorded by Sony on the occasion of Sergiu Celibidache’s 80th birthday. The crew making this film get off on the wrong foot by being spotted filming the pianist making his way to the concert hall from the airport. Seeing it as an invasion of his privacy he bans the crew from attending the concert. Secret filming and taping seems to be the only way of documenting the pianist in action, performing on his own Steinway. Even the Sony producer isn’t able to speak to the pianist. A very difficult and temperamental person, he can cancel at the drop of a hat if the temperature of the hall isn’t right, or the piano hasn’t been tuned and regulated to his high standards. Everyone in contact with him is on edge.

We then travel back in time to Michelangeli’s ‘comeback’ not long after the heart surgery. He was truly shaken by the experience and was determined to relaunch his career swiftly. He was nervous of collaborating with any of the big named conductors (Barenboim and Abbado are mentioned), instead choosing Garben, who hadn’t conducted since his student days. The rehearsals for performances of Mozart’s D minor and C major concertos to be given in Bremen were furtively filmed. There’s some interesting footage of the pianist rehearsing/ vocalising alone and a short excerpt of him shouting at Garben in intimidating fashion.

We meet a fan in New York who has spent much time building up an archive of self-made bootleg recordings; he has a briefcase surreptitiously concealing tape recorder and microphones. There’s also an alpine choir the pianist made vocal arrangements for. More fascinating is a visit to Michelangeli’s last home in Switzerland, now owned by Vladimir Ashkenazy and family. The Russian pianist has collected all the recordings and is an ardent admirer. It’s a great pity that the documentary doesn’t include contributions from Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini, Michelangeli’s most famous pupils.

At the end we return to the Sony recording booth for the Celibidache birthday concert. Something goes wrong with the lighting towards the end of the Ravel Concerto, resulting in part of the keyboard not being illuminated. The concert over, after a Chopin Mazurka encore, Garben is met with anger from conductor and pianist. He’s asked to apologize, but doesn’t know why. After seventeen years of close collaboration, Michelangeli breaks off all further contact with Garben, on account of this small lighting incident, and he orders all film footage of the concert to be destroyed.

This is a most valuable document, revealing an in-depth biopic of the complex character that was Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. It’s a must for his admirers and, indeed, pianophiles the world over.

Stephen Greenbank

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