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Trawling for treasure

BILL NEWMAN seeks out Golden Age performers now reinstated on CD

BBC    BBCL 4043-2

BBC Legends - Michelangeli (c) 2000 BBC Music


Stories still circulate about Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's perfectionism with keyboard technique, similar in comparison to Heifetz and the violin. This could often lend an element of coldness to Michelangeli's live interpretations, and on those occasions when a keyed-up audience was purposely kept waiting, he would eventually make his appearance sliding towards the piano stool with furtive glances all around. To devotees this was a sign that all was not well.

He would be fighting some kind of battle with himself and hopefully tension would disappear and he would move into that visionary state which yielded such power and mastery to his playing. On the reverse side lay such tragedy as we experienced at a Royal Festival Hall recital with a performance of Schumann's Faschingsschwank aus Wien performed with the subtlety of a tickertape machine.

When circumstances blossomed in the right way Michelangeli was a supreme artist. Happily this BBC Legends CD recaptured two of the exceptional occasions when he was at his incomparable best. A legion of pirated recordings on LP has not always shown this to be the case, and subsequent CD transfers -- with certain exceptions -- have tended to follow suit. So congratulations are deserved for this Legends disc.

In the mid-60s EMI and Decca were fighting for the rights to make records with the New Philharmonia and Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, whose career was blossoming out considerably. He became renowned for his sympathetic understanding with orchestras, choirs, and soloists on the London scene. Michelangeli had continued to champion the Grieg piano concerto, so the Royal Festival Hall was buzzing with excitement on the evening of 17 June 1965.

You can tell without hesitation the concerto starting with a timpani roll leading to striking piano chords. But a performance by Michelangeli brings absolute clarity. There is no 'leaning' into phrases, no unfettered rubati, no search to impose expressivity. Instead marvellous control, absolute clarity, a firm pulse, and therefore a pristine performance.

On matters of detail I must indicate a few subtleties: at letter A in the score of the slow movement, the left-hand group of seven notes (six semiquavers/quaver -- slurred triplet) corresponds precisely with the faster right-hand answering figure (3 x 5 note phrases) [listen -- track 2, 2:11-3:27]. This is an obvious booby trap for pianists unaware of and oblivious to the importance of the metronome marking, or the stringendi and sostenuti that develop the rising/falling phrase sequences.

The same is true at the opening of the Finale: Allegro moderato molto e marcato, where even longer annotated phrase spans should exactly match with the lead in to the poco animato. Michelangeli's uncanny precision with these subtleties lifts his performances so memorably. This one parallels Dinu Lipatti's commercial recording.

An instance of perfect timing paralleled Michelangeli's performance of Book 1 of Debussy's Préludes on April 13 1982. A day or so before, Michelangeli and the London Symphony Orchestra under Celibidache had engrossed a Royal Festival Hall audience with Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major, an occasion far more relaxed than the sessions years before, during which Michelangeli had slammed the piano lid following a slip in a solo passage by the bassoonist. He refused to return until the following day.

I recently asked a pianist to pinpoint the essential requirements about performing Debussy: correct tonal weight with lightness of touch to bring out the dancing characters, relaxed arms and wrists to allow the music to flow: basically to play exactly what is in the score without exaggerating or distorting the composer's precise, often detailed indications.

All the guidelines are present here. I will highlight the noble simplicity of Danseuses de Delphes with its calm spacious sonorities beautifully coloured by Michelangeli's crystalline touch, and the various atmospheres, pedal shadings and statuses. One can visualise exactly Les collines d'Anacapri which permeate the memory like a photographic impression, while Des pas sur la neige aptly traces the realm of suggestive intercourse. Ce qu' à vu le vent d'Ouest breaks the mould of concentration by the enormity of its power with a sustained build-up that never outstretches speed limits.

I love the alternately sad, then daringly chic demeanour of La fille aux cheveux de lin, whose pretended shyness is a far cry from the staccato foot tappings and sudden, wild accented gestures of flamenco dancers so beautifully caught by an interaction of finger pressures in La sérénade interrompue. When the partly shaded melody slyly appears just before the close, it is roughly brushed aside with a true fit of Latin temperament before petering out.

La cathédrale engloutie, apart from flummoxing interpreters in terms of correct pace and use of half-tones, is characterised by the artist's profound choice of tonal palette. Balanced sonorities and evenness of metre direct listeners on a course of undiminishing grandeur that leads naturally to calmness in repose.

Mercurial quickness of rising phrases and glissandi lend elfin grace and charm to La danse de Puck, while the satirical bounce and stilted jazz-based idiom of Minstrels adds a picture of light-hearted glee to end the proceedings.

To ensure the enormous pleasure of playing and performance at its finest, the recording has an immediacy that places this release in a class of its own.

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Copyright © 23 May 2001 Bill Newman, Edgware, UK







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Record Box is Music & Vision's regular Wednesday series of shorter CD reviews