Classical Reissue Reviews

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat Major; Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor – Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, p.// Sym. Orch. Stuttgart, SW German Radio/ Antoine de Bavier – ICA Classic

Live concert performances from the Ludwigsburg Festival 1956 prove Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli a consummate Mozartean.

Published on April 24, 2013

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat Major; Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor – Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, p.// Sym. Orch. Stuttgart, SW German Radio/ Antoine de Bavier – ICA Classic

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat Major, K. 450; Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 – Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano/ Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart, South West German Radio/ Antoine de Bavier – ICA Classics ICAC 5103, 54:24 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Recorded at the Ludwigsburg Festival, 11 July 1956, a pair of Mozart piano concertos emerges in its first CD release, featuring the extraordinary Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995) in relatively youthful guise, performing with his peerless mastery. Of course, we can always lament the fact of Michelangeli’s small recorded repertory, his constant honing of a narrow range of pieces to perfection. Here, with the Radio-Symphony Stuttgart, he makes his assemblage of keyboard colors with Swiss conductor Antoine de Bavier, a former clarinet player and protégé of Wilhelm Furtwaengler, who taught chamber music at the Salzburg Mozarteum.

Utilizing a large orchestra, conductor Bavier makes no concessions to the “authenticity movement,” opting for a hard-driven approach to the D Minor Concerto, and Michelangeli’s own tempos move briskly. What preserves the nobility of conception emanate from the uncanny clarity of Michelangeli’s line, his exquisite pearly play, and the fluid articulation that never betrays a false note or flawed transition. The sense of drama, too, proves hearty and liquid at once, often unleashing a potent vehicle for the sturm und drang sensibility – those tumultuous syncopations and echoes of Don Giovanni – that flavors Mozart’s otherwise galant leanings. Michelangeli’s decision to utilize the Beethoven cadenza – with its lovely canonic variants – simply reinforces his muscular approach to this massive work, which he performed any number of times, including a powerful performance at the Florence May Festival with Mitropoulos.

The aristocratic poise of the B-flat Major Romanze movement continues even into the intensely stormy middle section in G Minor. Michelangeli’s musical elongation of the note-values as we return to the opening material proves magical, given his seamless control. Conductor Bavier has his own passions to inject into this fine collaboration, and his orchestra makes a forceful virile impression. The Rondo: Allegro assai opens with the same roiling energy as the first movement, a virtual cataclysm of sound. Only Michelangeli seems to add a touch of gentle irony, well aware of our imminent shift to a sunny D Major. The hard patina Michelangeli projects from his Steinway often injects a nervous serenity upon the proceedings, but the battle over the forces of dissolution has been won. The convulsive but happy integration of forces comes together brilliantly, and I would rate this performance among the greats, akin to the Gieseking/Rosbaud inscription that has long been my preferred version.

“A concerto to make you sweat,” Mozart declared of his 1784 B-flat Major Concerto, K. 450. The intricacy of design, the pearly runs, fleet scales, and thrilling octaves, make this piece most demanding for the performer. Both performers have decided on a quite vigorous pace for the opening Allegro.  The horn-call motif has Michelangeli easily rivaling the orchestra for grandly sonorous effects. Michelangeli’s stop-on-the-dime dynamic shifts astound at every turn, so no wonder Celibidache called him a “conductor, since he makes so many colors.” The level of digital fluency from Michelangeli simply dazzles the ear, besides the sheer variety of touches. If Mozart’s concertos mean to impart the notion of sparkling technical perfection, then Michelangeli proves the ideal Mozart acolyte. In the course of the cadenza, Michelangeli indulges in those alla musette figurations that project an other-worldly charm in his music-making.

The lovely Andante movement invokes an aesthetic realm of beauty that Keats alone may have grasped in his poetic flights of fancy. When Michelangeli announces the theme mezzo-forte, its flowing character, assisted by lulling strings, reaches an ineffable height of serenity. If ever a piece of music invoked “a walk through the paradise garden,” this movement embodies it. The fleet 6/8 Rondo: Allegro establishes a virile contest between pianist and orchestra to see who will lead the merry dance. With a sweeping gesture or two from the orchestra, Mozart’s fertile imagination quite wins the laurels by embracing both forces. Certainly, this concerto served to display Mozart’s considerable prowess at the keyboard, but his invention humbles even Michelangeli, who merely serves as an immaculate instrument to a higher will.

—Gary Lemco

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