Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli – Mozart Piano Concertos, Nos 15 & 20 – SWR Classic

by | Sep 24, 2023 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466; Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-flat Major, K. 450 – Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano/ Sinfonieorchester des Süddeutschen Rundfunks/ Anton von Bavier – SWR Classic SWR19129CD (53:16) [Distr. by Naxos) ****:

Recorded in Ludwigsburg, 7 November 1956, these Mozart collaborations feature the piano legend Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995), perhaps the most fluently consummate performer on the keyboard of all time. While noted for his interpretations of Chopin and Debussy, the Mozart repertory proved even more limited, with no sonatas recorded and only four concertos, two of these offered here with conductor Anton von Bavier and the Southwest German Radio Orchestra. The 1784 Piano Concerto in B-flat Major meant to provide a companion to Mozart’s Concerto No. 16 in D, both vehicles for Mozart’s own pianistic prowess. Each earned the epithet “grand” to describe their ambitions for Mozart, especially that in B-flat, with its brilliant scalar runs and energetic antiphons for strings and woodwinds. Michelangeli’s deft articulation of scales and staccatos always bear an aspect his patented arpeggiations, which fill out the sonic image of any phrase. The touch, however, provides the magic: clean, light, crystal clear. The diminuendos at the trills’ end warrant the price of admission. The first movement cadenza seems realized by a musical Swiss watch, with every element balanced in figure and tempo. 

The Andante in E-flat Major (in 3/8) offers a theme and variations in plastic, fluid decoration, moving to a natural pivot at the dominant in B-flat. The woodwinds and pizzicato strings create an enhanced sense of the simple progressions, while Michelangeli’s keyboard seems to enter a fluid medium of song and refined rebuttal to the periods realized by the tutti. The perky Allegro in 6/8 gives us a fairly bravura rondo for Michelangeli to negotiate. These include quicksilver ascents and descents in 16ths, hand crossings, wide leaps, and a tremolo in both hands in order to combat the full sonority of the orchestra.  Mozart likes to alter the melodies’ entries, giving them alternately to the orchestra then to the solo. Near the coda, the flute appears for the first time to accompany Michelangeli in his course to another staggering cadenza rendition, rife with “symphonic” colors. The combined effects of the participants at the coda proper throbs with heathy energy.

The Concerto No. 20 in D Minor (1785) hardly needs more ink spilled over its dark, sturm und drang sensibilities. Conductor Bavier establishes the tense mood of syncopated, threatening darkness in the first movement Allegro, the urgent forces rushing up for their volcanic effect. Michelangeli’s entry in a new theme proceeds with reserved slowness and utmost clarity of design, and the forces merge for the high drama that unfolds with aggression. The aura of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (also in D Minor) seems nigh, with its themes of blasphemy, vengeance and imminent death. The piano part often appears trying to quell some of the fury in the orchestra but becomes immersed in the emotional turmoil. Listen to Michelangeli’s staggered approach to the recapitulation, the piano a dramatically lyrical percussion instrument. The Beethoven cadenza perfectly consummates this exquisitely wrought psychodrama in music, especially given Michelangeli’s range of color effects in runs, sudden dynamic shifts, and his trilled anticipation of the tutti’s re-entry.

The famous Romanza offers sanctuary in the midst of worldly chaos, but we know the punishing interlude in G Minor heralds more threats to any serenity of spirit. The precious clarity in Michelangeli’s rendering of the main theme and its quick upward scale appears the very model of Classical poise. With the intrusion into G Minor we have piano and orchestra in heated colloquy, the eight beat pattern’s ascending and descending in what Blake calls “fearful symmetry.” The storm disperses, and a guarded peace returns to offer consolation. The last movement, Allegro assai, however, returns in full fury, rife with asymmetries and harmonic ambiguities, an echo of the strife of movement one. Michelangeli’s entry at the first measure is nothing less than Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright.” After a series of scurrying dialogues and another explosive cadenza, the convulsive affect relents, and we find ourselves in a sunny D Major, swept along by bassoon and accompanying winds and those tumultuous strings and tympani, now tamed in a manner to the galant sense of happy endings. Highly recommended, even for hardened Michelangeli collectors.

—Gary Lemco

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