ALBUM TITLE: Collection: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli Ð Hommage
PERFORMER: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano); various conductors & orchestras
CATALOGUE NO: AUR 2000-2 ADD/DDD mono/stereo Reissue (1939-91)
Michelangeli died in 1995 at the age of 75, and anyone who was privileged to attend any of the rare recitals he gave in London in the last two decades of his life is unlikely to have forgotten the experience. It was always a nerve-racking occasion, given his notorious record of cancelling engagements, and the appearance of the man himself on stage, grim-faced and barely acknowledging the audience’s greeting, seemed to create more tension than ever. Yet the playing, except perhaps in the very last recital he gave in London, was worth all the anxiety: Michelangeli’s total command of the keyboard, his immense range of touch and articulation were phenomenal.
As he grew older and ever more aloof as a pianist, so his repertoire shrank. That makes this extraordinary collection of live performances, spanning virtually the whole of Michelangeli’s career – from Milan and Geneva in 1939, right up to that last Barbican appearance in 1991 – all the more valuable, for it contains many works, especially from the early years, that he never recorded commercially. The signature works are here too – there are two versions each of the Brahms Ballades, the two books of Debussy’s Images, and Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grande polonaise – and of the interpretations that he did bring to the studio the only significant omissions are Beethoven’s Op. 7 Sonata, Debussy’s Children’s Corner and Schumann’s Carnaval.
Inevitably the recording quality is occasionally frustratingly poor – the Schumann Concerto from New York in 1948 and Franck’s Symphonic Variations from Los Angeles in 1949 (a wondrously poetic account) are two of the most important casualties. And of course not everything here is equally successful – Michelangeli never delved deeply beneath the surface of the music, and the Schubert (the A minor Sonata D537, stiff and chilly) and Mozart (a wonderfully tooled B flat Concerto, K450, and an impersonal account of the E flat Piano Quartet) point that up. But even there the aristocratic bearing of the playing commands respect, and on home territory in something like Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, the sheer control and precision are terrifying.
The set is handsomely documented, including press notices of pre-war appearances and a long and touching memoir of the man by his wife Giuliana. What the outside world had to deal with, of course, was a pianistic legend, and these CDs present that in wonderful detail.