"Crystalline perfection" ... "a capricious perfectionist" ... "aloof, statuesque" -- all terms sometimes used to describe Michelangeli. These slightly disparaging terms contain some truth, but not all of it. Indeed, Michelangeli is one of those artists who call forth strong opinions. He frequently cancelled concerts. He sometimes gave the impression of disdain for the audience. He rarely played wrong notes. His persona was surrounded by mystery that intrigued music-lovers. And he was a magnificent artist.
This 1962 black and white film is made up of one live-in-recital performance (Beethoven Op. 111) and studio (RAI Turin) films (the rest of the program: Beethoven Op. 2, No. 3; Galuppi Sonata in C; Scarlatti Sonatas in C minor, K.11; C major, K. 159; A major, K.322; and B minor, K.27). They reportedly have been digitally remastered. Certainly both the video and especially the audio seem very nearly up to date. Sound is crystal clear and, frankly, exciting in its immediacy.
As for the playing, this is vintage Michelangeli at the top of his game. He was 42 when these films were made, still film-star handsome. Camera angles are few, camera movement sparse, and there are no straight-on head shots, but there are good views of his hands (and amazing hands they are). He sits bolt upright at the piano with few extraneous body movements. The playing is not, as it is sometimes characterized, cool or distant. His body language might suggest that it is, but indeed if one listens with closed eyes one hears barely suppressed emotionality in the phrasing and dynamics. His storied trills and legato are in place, but also his romantic phrasing is also in evidence. The little Galuppi sonata, a favorite of his (and apparently no one else plays it - perhaps they don't want to compete with him!) is so simple, so tender, so emotional that, in the first movement, I was left with tears in my eyes.
The Op. 111 is played masterfully. The first movement is dramatic partly because of the wide dynamics used. The second movement, a wondrous set of variations, is extremely satisfying; he underlines Beethoven's surprising, even sometimes shocking, juxtapositions. The filigree in the all-treble variation is breathtaking, and when he encounters those right hand trills that accompany right hand melodies (don't try this at home!) the playing is seamless and little short of unbelievable.
Beethoven's Op. 2, No. 3 - so rarely played by other pianists unless they are doing a complete traversal of the sonatas - was a great favorite of Michelangeli's. And he plays it in a fairly relaxed (perhaps 'confident' is a better word) manner but with plenty of snap to those opening parallel thirds. He manages the Alberti basses without their becoming trite, emphasizing the lyricism of the melodies they accompany. The slow movement, placed second in this sonata, is utterly serene and becomes the emotional center of the sonata. The amazing calm he conveys reminds one of his way with the second movement of his nonpareil Ravel G Major Sonata recording in that he seems to make time stop. In the Scherzo one is made all the more aware of how Michelangeli's left hand is fully the equal of his right. The Finale's opening chordal scales are truly exciting -- and voiced perfectly. One can see how some detractors would say that his technical mastery is perhaps too rehearsed, but frankly I disagree with that. What's wrong with being able to play a passage precisely the way you want it? At any rate, this often overlooked sonata is finished with a flourish and one comes away thinking it is one of Beethoven's best.
The four Scarlatti sonatas are among the more familiar of the 555 he wrote. Here, if anywhere in this recital, one can see that Michelangeli is not just a mechanicus. Each sonata is different, and more to the point, within each sonata one can find countless variations in dynamics, phrasing and touch. This is romantic Scarlatti - pianistic Scarlatti - that does not stray over the line into self-indulgence. Perhaps "crystalline perfection" isn't so far off the point after all.
TT=84 mins. No extras. Sound: LPCM mono. No subtitles -- simply title cards containing names of works and their movements in Italian.