Concertos Nos. 1, 3 & 5 (Emperor) *
Sonata in E flat, Op.7
Mazurkas (selection), Ballade in G minor, Scherzo in B flat minor, Prelude in C sharp minor
Preludes (Books 1 & 2), Children’s Corner, Images (I & II)
Concertos in C (K415), B flat (K450), D minor (K466) & C (K503) **
Carnaval & Faschingsschwank aus Wien
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Carlo Maria Giulini *
Cord Garben **
Recorded between 1957-1990
Reviewed by: Ying Chang
Reviewed: January 2003
CD No: DG 469 820-2 (8 CDs)
Over the eight discs, Michelangeli’s distinctive and consistent personality clearly emerges. It is the personality of a giant, but neither a patient nor a loveable one. Michelangeli’s playing was aristocratic, decisive and utterly self-confident. He was deeply interested by the soundworld of the piano and capable of infinite variation within it, which led to accusations that he was occupied by surface more than depth. His playing could be breathtakingly poetic, although he never sought beauty for the sake of it, nor to woo an audience with the least trace of sentiment.
The best moments in this set, then, arrive almost by accident, as intervals of divinity between passages of the severest discipline and control. It is also impossible to escape the perception that Michelangeli’s interpretations improve as he approaches the present day in terms of the music’s composition.
Michelangeli’s approach is seen to greatest disadvantage in the Mozart concertos. If you like your Mozart in the relaxed, lyrical, respectful fashion as essayed today by an Uchida, a Pires or a Perahia, you will put Michelangeli away after a single hearing for his brusqueness and lack of sympathy. Michelangeli was a pilot in the Second War – as the finale of K415 begins, one can almost hear, in its clipped, martial attack, an officer drilling his recruits on the parade ground. K450 is similarly unsmiling, most notably in the finale, where the rondo dance is brusque in the extreme.
The later, more famous concertos are similar. Compared to the recent coupling I have listened to on Warner’s Elatus label from Argerich and Richter, Michelangeli is emotionally much cooler – neither excitable like Argerich (whose playing he famously disliked when she came to him as a pupil), nor classically reflective like Richter. It is hard not to feel that these interpretations are soulless.
Yet, the sheer drive and certainty Michelangeli has does yield rewards. The early Schubert sonata, D537, is easily scorned as an indifferent hotchpotch. In Michelangeli’s hands, and with brisk tempi, its flaws pass almost unnoticed, leaving only the sense of fragments of perfect melody embedded in a well-formed structure. Where the recent Uchida recording, with its loving nurture of every detail, actually exposes the sonata’s compositional weaknesses, Michelangeli gruffly excuses its awkwardness and is, paradoxically, the more convincing performance.
Michelangeli was famous for eccentricities of repertoire.Although it is claimed that he had more in his armoury than is generally acknowledged, it is the case that, bizarrely, the early Schubert sonata presented here appears to have been the only one he performed. Similarly, the Beethoven Op.7, also an unusual choice, represents a very limited selection of the sonatas. His hard-driven, non-nonsense performance has the same virtues as the Schubert – excellent architectonic sense.
Likewise, Michelangeli’s First Beethoven Concerto will not be to every listener’s liking. High on drama, but short on lyricism, it is has the same shortcomings as his Mozart. The first movement has an engaging heroic grandeur, but the slow movement drags and the finale lacks wit, lightness and sparkle. The Third concerto is similarly frustrating. After a first movement that is not inappropriately hectoring, the slow one is hauntingly beautiful, unexpectedly reflective, an endless paean of poetry that reveals apparently limitless depths. It is another triumph of Michelangeli’s beautiful sound, but the finale is then dismissive and even perfunctory. What is consistent about Michelangeli, is that he always holds true to himself and to his vision of the music, irrespective of how conventional or not this may make his interpretations. With the ’Emperor’, however, we see Michelangeli at his best – heroic, imperious, the concerto ideally suited to the soloist’s persona. From the very first entry he has the authority and confidence to carry off one of the defining highpoints of the Romantic ego. You will hear few performances where the soloist has so strong a presence and so consistently takes charge of the musical direction. Even in this work, however, there is evidence of Michelangeli’s fondness for separateness and even desiccation. The big chords in the middle of the slow movement, much like the sudden shifts of gear in the first movement of Concerto No.1, or the deliberation of the slow movement of Op.7, are almost perversely counter-intuitive and wilful, detail at the expense of flow. Playing like this reminds, oddly enough, of Glenn Gould.
In Michelangeli’s performances of Romantic music, and Chopin in particular, we hear a microcosm of his playing as a whole – sometimes literally. Some of the mazurkas are simply ravishing, their soundworlds as carefully and beautifully conceived as finely cut jewels. The Prelude (Op.45) is equally striking in its seductiveness. The Second Scherzo though is hard-driven, unvarying through all the repetitions, so controlled that there is not even an illusion of spontaneity or improvisation, and the First Ballade is likewise unyielding, more a cautionary tale than a fairy story.
Michelangeli’s Carnaval, the earliest recording on the disc, is far less strongly characterised than most of the great performances of the work. Yet, at times, notably in ’Chiarina’, and ’Aveu’, the perfect correspondence between sound, vision and impeccable technique provides a few seconds of sheer perfection. Faschingsschwank has the same good points as Michelangeli’s Schubert – his impatience with the first movement’s flabbiness or the repetitiveness of the last allows the work to hold together well, while the two slow movements have the trademark beauty of tone. Ironically, as one aggregates the Chopin mazurkas, the moments in Carnaval and the ’Intermezzo’ of Faschingsschwank, it appears that so Olympian a figure was actually at his most successful when perfectly fashioning a miniature. Brahms, however, fares much as Beethoven, the performer never indulgent, and the Ballades lose some of their poetic dimension as a result.
With the two Debussy discs, we reach territory for which Michelangeli’s concern for sonority is ideally suited, and indeed to recordings which are justly celebrated in issue and re-issue. In Impressionist music, it is perfection of surface that conveys depth, and Michelangeli’s infinite pains with that surface produce unsurpassed interpretations. Listen to the endless ripples of ’Reflets dans l’eau’, the imperceptible fragmentation of ’Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ or the sinister appearance of the submerged cathedral, as mysterious and unsettling as any Hitchcock movie. Allied to Michelangeli’s formidable technique, these are two timelessly excellent discs, as poetic as Gieseking, as virtuosic as Zimerman.
Jeremy Siepmann contributes a lengthy and illuminating essay on Michelangeli and discusses a number of the Michelangeli facts and myths – the supposed arrogance that was in fact shyness, the preoccupation with excavating sound, and the logic of his interpretations. Siepmann also reminds us of Michelangeli’s success as a teacher. Listening to these recordings, with their aloof distance, their metallic intellectuality and their utter refusal to compromise, one appreciates very clearly this tradition of pianism of which Maurizio Pollini, a pupil, is a direct inheritor.
A word of warning – in the small print at the end of the brochure, the recording dates betray that in chronological terms, this is not a comprehensive survey. The Schumann dates from 1957, then we go to the 70s and finally to 1989-90. For a fuller picture of the artist, including live recordings from the war years, you would need to turn to other compilations, the 10-disc collection on Fonit Cetra, for example. However, I did listen to a number of these early recordings and I must say that there is little to choose between early and late in terms of Michelangeli’s steel and pianism.
Overall, then, this is not a set in which every performance will appeal to every taste, and some may find Michelangeli’s renditions antipathetic. However, as a commemoration of a great pianist, this is an indispensable collection. DG is to be congratulated for making such important recordings so accessible.