Michelangeli Beethoven Ravel/BBC C

Review by: Jed Distler

Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 6

The Beethoven and Debussy selections were played on the same April 13, 1982 Royal Festival Hall recital from which BBC Legends released Debussy’s Preludes Book I. Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, a longtime Michelangeli specialty, is the same 1959 BBC recital recording that Philips included in its Great Pianists of the 20th Century series. The BBC transfer is slightly fuller-sounding, but just slightly, no more. What’s amazing about this performance is its utter lack of affection and manipulation. Michelangeli plays each of the three movements as straight as he can, honoring Ravel’s precise dynamic, pedaling, and phrasing directives by inhumanly controlled gradations of touch and tone. Yes, Argerich and Pogorelich play Scarbo faster, but do they nail the repeated notes with Michelangeli’s even exactitude and subtlety? I rest my case.

Hommage à Rameau proceeds along the bracing, multi-colored lines of Michelangeli’s DG studio version, save for a teensy stumble in the first climax. Neither version, however, reaches the pellucid, supple heights of the pianist’s 1957 Royal Festival Hall traversal on Testament. My earlier comments vis-à-vis Michelangeli as enbalmer rather than interpreter in Beethoven’s Op. 7 Sonata apply here too. He bears more heavily on the first movement’s offbeat accents than before and sentimentalizes the Finale’s lyrical theme by indulging in Paderewski-like breaking of hands. The studio version, though no less contrived from a musical standpoint, avoids that mannerism.

Michelangeli’s aloof, statuesque rendition of the Op. 26 sonata similarly suffers from outsized dynamics, exaggerated accentuation (those King Kong staccatos in the first-movement variations), and pasted-on rubatos. The Funeral March itself rarely has sounded so grim, unyielding, and mercilessly pounded out. Apparently the pianist played this concert running a fever, which might explain a few uneven runs and overpedaled passages in the Finale (Michelangeli’s April 7, 1981 Lugano performance on Aura 223-2 is cleaner in this regard). Note that the Royal Festival Hall Op. 26 has been out before on inferior-sounding “unauthorized” editions.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Beethoven Op. 7: Gilels (DG), Op. 26: Richter (Philips), Ravel: Argerich (DG)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN - Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat ("Funeral March") Op. 26; Piano Sonata No. 4 in E-flat Op. 7
CLAUDE DEBUSSY - Images Book I: Hommage à Rameau
MAURICE RAVEL - Gaspard de la Nuit

  • Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (piano)
  • BBC - 4064-2
  • CD

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