Trawling for treasure
BILL NEWMAN seeks out Golden Age performers now reinstated on CD
BBC BBCL 4043-2
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
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
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
Copyright © 23 May 2001
Bill Newman, Edgware, UK
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