Michelangeli: BBC Legends disc
Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel (Gaspard)
A Stunning 'Gaspard' and more
This CD is taken from the vaults of BBC radio and is part of their 'BBC
Legends' series. The performances here are mostly from a Royal Festival
Hall recital in 1982, a recital in which Michelangeli was reportedly
running a fever but refused to cancel; considering his reputation for
canceling for all kinds of reasons, we should be glad he went ahead with
this one because it is superb. Also included is a performance from 1959
of one of his specialties, Ravel's 'Gaspard de la nuit.'
That 'Gaspard' is one of the most astonishing performances I've
ever heard. Michelangeli, who had a reputation for adding somewhat
idiosyncratic accents and dynamics, plays this one absolutely straight
and it is one for the ages. This is the same performance included in
the Philips 'Great Pianists of the 20th Century' but a comparison shows
that this BBC release is actually in somewhat better sound. Granted,
it is from 1959, but the sound is really quite good and I don't think
anyone will feel they've missed anything in the 45-year-old sonics.
Just listen to how he brings out nuances in 'Ondine.' I heard things
(a prefiguration of the tolling bell in 'Le gibet,' for instance) that
I'd never heard before. 'Le gibet' is devastating in its desolation.
'Scarbo,' while not as fast as Argerich's celebrated recording, is
cleaner than hers and this is, amazingly, a reportedly un-retouched LIVE
performance. Pianists of all stripes can only gape in amazement at this
man's technique. He not only plays extraordinarily cleanly (listen to
the repeated notes in 'Scarbo') but the variety in his touch, even in
this 1950s sound, is simply astounding. This performance is definitely
one for every music-lover's collection.
In the 1982 recital there are two Beethoven sonatas--Michelangeli didn't
play all that many Beethoven sonatas, but these two were specialties of
his. There have been quibbles about his over-emphatic early Beethoven,
but you won't hear that from me. His emotional approach, with emphasized
sforzati and dynamic contrasts, strike me as equally valid to rather
more lyrical approaches. The andante and variations first movement of
the Op. 26 sonata is a good deal more dramatic than one generally hears
it, and considering that this is the only Beethoven sonata without a
sonata-allegro movement, this movement takes the place of one; Michelangeli's
choice to play it dramatically helps make it the linchpin of the sonata.
The slow movement, a funeral march, is wrenching in its intensity. (An
brass band arrangement of this movement was played at Beethoven's funeral.)
The Op. 7 sonata, usually played in a classical manner, is also quite
intense and frankly I think it benefits from this approach. I will admit
that I am smitten with Michelangeli's playing and willing to accept
pretty much whatever he does. One reason, aside from his monumental
technique, is that he is a thinking musician whose choices are not lightly
taken. This is not to say that there aren't lyrical passages in this
early sonata; the largo second movement has lyricism to spare, and
Michelangeli's control of the slow harmonic motion of this movement is
a lesson in concentration for other lesser pianists.
Michelangeli was a genius at the music of Debussy and we can be thankful
that he extracted the 'Hommage a Rameau' from that composer's first book
of 'Images' for this recital. This is not watery, feminine Debussy; it
has spine and form that it often is deprived of by other pianists. It
I can recommend this disc with complete confidence.