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Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Vol. IV = BACH: Chaconne in D Minor; BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 3; SCHUMANN: Faschingsschwank aus Wien; BRAHMS: Paganini Variations – Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano – Praga Digitals

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Vol. IV = BACH: Chaconne in D Minor, BWV 1004 (arr. Busoni); BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3; SCHUMANN: Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26; BRAHMS: Paganini Variations, Op. 35 – Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano – Praga Digitals mono SACD PRD/DSD 350 095, 75:37 (12/1/14) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

The collector of the recorded legacy of keyboard phenomenon Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995) faces the same issues as the collector of Josef Hofmann’s discography, a limited selection of repertory often compromised by variable sound sources.  The present assemblage of historic inscriptions, 1941-1957, projects, even in the earliest of these re-mastered for SACD performances – the Beethoven Sonata in C from Milan, June 1941 – reveals a directness and incisive pungency so easily identifiable as the Michelangeli’s fluidly glacial style. The one “live” recital of the Schumann Carnival-Jest of Vienna (12 May 1957), after a series of deliciously bold maneuvers in rhythm and romantic inwardness, bursts forth in a high-toned finale that brings the London audience to collective ecstasies.

Both the Bach Chaconne and the Brahms Paganini Variations derive from two sessions, 26-27 October 1948, at the EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3. The sheer bravura of the Bach and Brahms works mark this pianist as among the great ones, given the breadth of his color palette and his easy grace of transition. Michelangeli’s treatment of the Brahms proves willful and whimsical, omitting certain variations and changing the order of their presentation, a truly idiosyncratic reading by a romantic iconoclast. But the rewards of hearing Michelangeli’s alla musette in Book I Variation XII more than justify our patience with his eccentricities of style. Few pianists can so brilliantly capture the violin bariolage and double-stopping endemic in Paganini -as in the Bach transcription – all the more to make us lament the dearth of other Brahms and Liszt offerings in Michelangeli’s collective repertory. The Variation X of Book II, from its outset, possesses all the grandeur we would have relished had this pianist inscribed the B-flat Major Piano Concerto. The last two variations – XIIII and XIV from Book I – must suffice for our lack of any Michelangeli Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody. They do.

The Beethoven 1795 C Major Sonata in its revitalized sound has not only acquired resonant girth, but its musical periods now fall more naturally into architectural place, streamlined and warmly fluid, as Michelangeli can be when he eschews dynamism for its own sake. We witness a pianist of uncanny digital strength, most often testified to by his dimuendos and clarity of line, even in the midst of added flurries of grace notes. The rock-solid basic pulse announces how much the Chopin aesthetic permeates Michelangeli’s approach, although the explosive propulsion remains echt Beethoven. Small wonder, then, that Celibidache would consistently refer to Michelangeli as “a true conductor – he makes colors.” Highly recommended (even if you don’t have an SACD player), in spite of all previous incarnations of these selections.

—Gary Lemco

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