Michelangeli was mysterious to the end RETROSPECTIVE

June 13, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

That Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was a legend with a cult following rather than merely a famous musician with fans indicates how mysterious a figure the Italian pianist was.

Mr. Michelangeli, who died yesterday in Lugano, Switzerland, at the age of 75, was one of the greatest pianists of all time and perhaps -- in purely technical terms -- the most perfect pianist of the 20th century. Yet even in death, he was shrouded in mystery. Although his death was presumed to have come from heart failure, his attending physician, who requested anonymity, said that the pianist had asked him to keep the cause of his death secret.

Mr. Michelangeli's gigantic career was based on a minuscule number of appearances and records. He scheduled very few concerts -- he made only six American tours and had not appeared here since 1972 -- and he canceled more performances than he gave. And although he had not appeared in public since a London recital in 1990, Mr. Michelangeli's name on a marquee in any large city would not only have guaranteed a sellout audience overnight but also would have ensured pilgrimages from all over the world from the pianist's followers and every pianist with a night off and enough money for an airline ticket.

Mr. Michelangeli was the pianist's pianist because he was the ultimate student of the technique of playing the instrument. He played with as close to 100 percent efficiency as any pianist who ever lived; every motion was carefully thought out and pared down to the minimum that would produce a maximal result. A pianist could watch a videotape of Mr. Michelangeli with the sound turned off and still be fascinated.

But if he was like a scientist in his relationship to the piano, Mr. Michelangeli was also something of a mad scientist. With the death of Vladimir Horowitz six years ago, Mr. Michelangeli became the last pianist who traveled everywhere with his own piano -- a Hamburg Steinway. But, unlike Horowitz, Mr. Michelangeli also traveled with his own technician -- someone who worked only for Mr. Michelangeli and knew exactly what the pianist wanted done to the instrument so that its voicing and regulation could be altered to achieve perfection in Beethoven as well as in Debussy.

Perhaps it was Mr. Michelangeli's perfectionism that was responsible for his reclusive and eccentric behavior. Horowitz, who was himself not a stranger to mental illness, used to refer to his Italian rival as "the great meshugunah" (Yiddish for "crazy one"), and there was an element of manic intensity in Mr. Michelangeli's performances. He performed Ravel's ghoulish "Gaspard de la Nuit," for example, with the glee of Count Dracula at liberty in a blood bank; he made the chords in Beethoven's cadenza for his First Piano Concerto sound as black as Judgment Day; and he played Brahms' treacherously dense "Paganini Variations" with awesome legerdemain and laser-like clarity.

Such playing would have been enough to create a legend, but Mr. Michelangeli also looked the part. He was tall, good-looking (if of funereal mien) and wore his red hair (which was dyed in his later years) almost down to his shoulders. And although he eschewed publicity and avoided interviews, he had an absolute genius for gestures.

After a stupendous Carnegie Hall recital in 1966, Mr. Michelangeli's refusal to play an encore only drove the audience, already mad with enthusiasm, further over the brink. First the stage door was closed, indicating that the artist would no longer take curtain calls. Then the house lights were turned on, and the stage lights turned off. Still, the audience remained, now with its cheers joined by rhythmic hand-clapping and foot-stamping.

Suddenly, the house lights went out, leaving the hall lit only by the eerie green from the "Exit" signs; the stage door swung open with a groan; and a spectral figure -- part Prince Hamlet, part Count Dracula -- crossed the stage to the piano. Mr. Michelangeli proceeded to play an encore -- Debussy's "La Cathedrale Engloutie" ("The Sunken Cathedral"), which evokes a church filled with damned souls that rises from the depths of the ocean at midnight.

Part of the Michelangeli mystery was meretricious. The pianist, who lived for a while in a castle near his birthplace in Brescia, Italy, claimed noble descent and (in his rare interviews) referred to his father as a professor at the local conservatory of music. The truth was somewhat more prosaic. Mr. Michelangeli's father was indeed employed by the conservatory in Brescia -- not as a professor, but as a janitor.

And one of the reasons that Mr. Michelangeli canceled as often as he did may have been his tiny repertory, consisting of perhaps five or six concertos (most pianists play 20 or more) and perhaps three recital programs, which the pianist repeated year after year. Perhaps Mr. Michelangeli played with such perfection year after year because his cancellations helped keep the pieces from becoming stale.

But if Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was the mad scientist of the piano, his command and knowledge of the instrument, as well as the results he produced from it, were worthy of a Nobel Prize.

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