A brilliant, enigmatic pianist

Classical Sounds

November 17, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli performs Schumann, Chopin, Debussy and Mompou: The unpublished EMI live recording, London, 1957 (Testament SBT 2088):

The death last year of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli deprived the world of one of its greatest -- and, certainly, its most mysterious -- pianists. Michelangeli performed the smallest repertory of any major pianist in history, he canceled twice as many concerts as he gave and he made pitiably few recordings.

Yet despite his melancholy disposition, his reclusive personality and the fact that his interpretations were as often chilly as sublime, he achieved legendary stature almost from the start of his career. His reputation as perhaps the most perfect player in the history of the piano is made almost indisputable by this never-before-published live and unedited recording of his recital in London's Festival Hall in 1957.

Unlike Sviatoslav Richter, who investigated almost all of Schumann's solo repertory, including its most obscure corners, Michelangeli played only the "Carnaval," perhaps the composer's best-known extended work, and the much-less familiar "Faschings-schwank aus Wien." Only Richter rivaled Michelangeli in his ability to catapult the latter, whose title translates "Carnival Pranks in Vienna," to a place among Schumann's greatest compositions for piano. Michelangeli's performance explodes from the gate in the opening Allegro and the pianist goes on to create one pianistic miracle after another. There are his infinite gradations of tone in the "Romanze," his ability in the Scherzo to suggest bursts of humor where everyone else -- save Richter -- sounds leaden, the tensile strength of his powerfully inflected "Intermezzo," and a Finale in which he takes a tempo that leaves even Richter in the dust.

The performance of "Carnaval" is in the same class. The playing here may not be as warmhearted as it is on the recordings of Rachmaninoff, Novaes and Rubinstein, but there is no question about Michelangeli's ability to explore Schumann's idiosyncratic swings in mood, to create exhilaration through his electrifying pianism and to organize this difficult piece into a coherent whole.

Dynamic, precise

Michelangeli was never less than his best in the music of the French impressionists. In the performances of four of Debussy's "Images" -- two each from Book I and Book II -- the pianist attends to dynamics with pinpoint precision and creates an extraordinary sense of mystery and drama. The pianist's Chopin was less universally admired than his Debussy, and there were times that Michelangeli's search for pianistic perfection emphasized Chopin's elegance to the detriment of his lyricism. In this recital, however, Michelangeli's G Minor Ballade (with its rapier-like thrusts and aristocratic ease) and his F Minor Fantasy (in which pianistic fleetness does not eschew a sense of the work's gravity) resolve any doubts about the pianist's authority as a Chopin interpreter.

Genius is always inexplicable, but the final 32 minutes of the second CD of this set gives us a fascinatingly close glimpse of genius at work. Shortly after his recital, and on the day before the pianist was to record his celebrated versions of Rachmaninoff's G Minor and Ravel's G Major concertos, Michelangeli, accompanied by conductor Ettore Gracis, EMI producer Victor Olof and sound engineer Neville Bayley, visited the studio to try out the piano. The conversation is almost entirely in Italian, but English-only listeners will still be able to follow the pianist as he questions -- sometimes with eruptions of rage -- the instrument's evenness of action, the resonance of its registers and its ability to withstand his powerful attacks without becoming harsh.

More interesting still is the way in which he repeats passages from the "Faschingsschwank" -- surprisingly, he plays not a note of the Ravel or Rachmaninoff scheduled for the next day and indulges in distortions of dynamics and tempos. What clearly preoccupies the pianist is sound -- in calibrating fluctuations of sonority so minute that other pianists would be deaf to them. We are listening here to a mad scientist at work -- but one whose relentless experimenting produced results unique in 20th century pianism.

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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