[This is a reissue of an earlier Euroarts DVD. I had written a review of that issue and that is what follows.]
Most people agree that Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995) was one of the giants of recent pianism. I never had the honor of hearing him live, but I've treasured many of his recordings over the years. (I am particularly fond of his recording of the Ravel G Major Piano Concerto, coupled with the Rachmaninoff Fourth Concerto, on EMI.) And I have seen him only once on television--many years ago playing the Beethoven Fourth Concerto with I don't remember whom. (I've never seen the VHS/DVD that features him and Richter; I really need to rectify that omission.) So, this DVD was a welcome arrival. I certainly was not disappointed with the performances here: Beethoven's Sonata No. 11 in B Flat, Op. 22, and the Sonata No. 12 in A Flat, Op. 26; Schubert's Sonata in A Minor, D. 537 (Op. 164); Brahms's Four Ballades, Op. 10. Indeed, they are immensely enjoyable, and in some cases stupendous.
Michelangeli didn't play all the Beethoven sonatas in his career, at least not in public; in fact, he only played a handful of them. And Opp. 22 and 26 figured large in his recital programs. They are played in reverse order here and I would like to spend a little time on the Op. 26 because I find it so wonderful. From the very beginning of the first movement we know we are in for something special: the sforzato chord at m. 4, for instance, has notable emphasis and slight prolongation on the D flat (which is actually a crushed appoggiatura in an otherwise straightforward A flat chord) that sets the tone for the fairly bold manner of Michelangeli's take on this movement that is so often played as fairly tame, fairly pastoral. (By the way, did you know that Op. 26 is one of only two Beethoven sonatas that do not contain a sonata-allegro movement? This first movement is an andante set of variations the beginning of each of which is here captioned discreetly on-screen.) Variation II is notable for the delicacy of Michelangeli's staccato left-hand octaves; his hand almost never leaves the keyboard and yet there is a lightness that most pianists would obtain only by leaping off the notes in order to put some air between the staccati. Listen to the expertly controlled crescendo at mm. 5-8 of Var. III followed by sforzati in the following main bass notes that exactly match the volume arrived at at the end of the crescendo, while above them the melody's volume has gone back to the original piano. This kind of attention to musical detail is the sort of thing that makes Michelangeli a kind of god to some music-lovers. Well, enough micro-dissection. I simply wanted you to get an idea of the technical aspects of this inspired music-making. One more word about this sonata. Listen to the limpid left hand scales in the second half of the first section of the Scherzo. And then the soft yet resounding chords in the Trio. Holy moley!
Before I make this review much too long for anyone to read, I'll simply comment that I find the Op. 22 slightly less startlingly vivid, but still a cut above most renditions I've heard. It's a difficult sonata to pull off, especially in the second movement whose right hand melody must be simplicity itself as well as agonizingly expressive all the while; Michelangeli manages that, although there is maybe a hint of calculation here. The Schubert A Minor reminds me a good bit of that recorded by Kempff, a pianist I know he admired. However, he begins the sonata with more forcefulness than is usually heard. This soon settles, though, into a rather more thoughtful mood; there seems to be an emphasis on dynamic contrasts throughout his traversal of this work.
He finishes off with the Op. 10 Brahms Ballades. Having played the first one, 'Edward,' in my youth, I was particularly struck by his incredible control of phrasing. This is a rather more controlled reading that one often hears; many pianists really emote (in the worst sense of that word) because of the gruesome subtext of the Ballade. With Michelangeli the emotion builds to the climax and resolution and it feels natural rather than acted.
This is a 1981 live performance before a quiet audience in the auditorium of Radio Televisione Svizzera Di Lingua Italiana (RTSI, the Italian language Swiss radio and television network) in Lugano, Switzerland. There is no footage of Michelangeli entering the stage; it simply opens with him at the piano ready to begin. At the ends of the two halves of the recital he simply gets up and walks away, barely acknowledging the audience. I'm told this was typical of his stage manner, but it is a bit odd appearing to me. The video camera moves rather too much for my taste. I would much rather have spent a great deal more time focused on Michelangeli's hands than his rather tic-ridden facial expressions. And we almost never get to see his pedaling, a real loss because it is one the marvels of his playing. One does gasp at the silkenness and technique of his legato, the stillness of his movements, and the forcefulness of his fortissimi that seem to come out of nowhere--he certainly doesn't telegraph his punches. Still, I suppose all this camera movement has become the norm for televised musical performances and at least it never did quite become frenetic as camerawork so often does these days. The sound is quite good.
I am delighted to have this DVD. It captures both the sound and the physical technique of a pianist I've admired for many years and I'm very happy for that.
TT: 107mins; NTSC 6.3; PCM Stereo, DD5.1, DTS5.1; Region: 0 (worldwide)