Michelangeli plays CHOPIN

by | Mar 1, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Michelangeli plays CHOPIN

Program: Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 35; Ballade No. 1 im G Minor, Op. 23; Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise brillante, Op. 22; Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49; Waltz in A-flat, Op. 69, No. 1; Waltz in A-flat, Op. 34, No. 1; Waltz in E-flat; Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Op. 31; Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 68, No. 2; Mazurka in B Minor, Op. 33, No. 4; Mazurka in D-flat, Op. 30, No. 3; Berceuse in D-flat, Op. 57
Studio: Opus Arts DVD OA 0940 D
Video: 4:3 Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono
Length: 106 minutes
Rating: *****

Chaste perfection marks every bar of every piece contained in this 1962 RAI Turin concert featuring the eminent virtuoso Arturo Benedetti Michelangelo (1920-1995), offering single-take performances of exquisite elegance and power. Michelangeli is seated on a bare stage, a white background, and perhaps two cameras capture his art. Michelangeli forbade all close-ups of his face, and the cameras pan directly front or to the right side of his countenance. Occasionally, the camera moves directly behind him to throw his back, head, and hands into perspective. Otherwise, our attention must be fixed on the music.

The opening Sonata in B-flat Minor skims along like a skater on polished ice.  Michelangeli takes the first movement repeat. His long fingers stretch over the keyboard so effectively, he hardly seems to move, a lean statue from which divine music emanates, “a miracle of rare device.” The poetry seems almost mechanical until the trio of the Marche funebre, where the melody escapes from strict time, and Michelangeli himself appears enchanted by the world he unfolds. The maelstrom of the last movement emerges as somewhat contrived, but underneath the cleanly burnished surface is that sea of gliding monsters to which Claggart refers in Billy Budd. For the G Minor Ballade, of which Michelangeli made a fine commercial inscription for DGG, we see a microphone placement downstage left. Michelangeli opens dreamily, the Neapolitan harmonies and the three-note figure merging into a graceful, melancholy arabesque. Suddenly, the titanic energy of the piece breaks forth, and piano thunders and pings with renewed sonority.  Michelangeli plays the third theme in the manner of a nocturne, exquisitely vocal, a remembrance of things past. The storms surge and subside under perfect control; even the blazing coda emits a passionate repose. One fine aspect his playing is his holding of the fermatae well into the transitions between selections.

The Andante spianato in G Major opens with a florid ostinato and silken runs as chiseled as anything Josef Hofmann played.  To call Michelangeli’s playing “pearly” is a disservice to the glittering cascades he produces. His subtle marcato for the gentle march tune is another evocative miracle. The scale passages flutter and melt back into pathos. Michelangeli segues into the Polonaise after a full rest and only a brief transition. The Polonaise is a Lisztian etude in lightness of touch and brittle unfolding of arch forms. Michelangeli looks like an athlete mesmerized by his own hands, bemused by his own legerdemain. We wonder why he eschewed the Saint-Saens concertos.

With aristocratic detachment Michelangeli renders the Polonaise theme, the ornaments and grace-notes fly by effortlessly, the pulse implacable. The triptych of large works concludes with the F Minor Fantasy, rendered more lyrically than most in its opening pages, although Michelangeli’s left hand adumbrates the ground swells of emotion that soon burst forth. The camera backs away and closes back in like a cat, now eager to seize the massive and glittering octaves Michelangeli throws out in fiery waves through the staccato march that segues to the arpeggios which end the large period. Michelangeli takes the extended bridge work in one large gulp. Soft rolling chords to the middle section, the camera refocusing on the pianist’s wistful, athletic profile. The last section of the Fantasy is all panache and blinding facility, though the music is not lost in the pyrotechnics.

A cuff adjustment or two, and we are in the rarified atmosphere of the so-called Adieu Waltz. Almost glib, but the tender evocation of beauty and pain approaches a transparent stillness. Tempo rubato to spare, the piece basks in the Chopin style. The ensuing Waltz brillante resonates with bombastic flair, but the largesse of the emotion is under Michelangeli’s pearly restraint. The posthumous E-flat Waltz has a stentorian brashness about it, its model being Schubert. Michelangeli’s palette lavishes great color upon the conceits of youth. The massive Scherzo in B-flat Minor is a Michelangeli tour de force, and detractors may keep their envy to themselves. The rhapsodic theme in D-flat floats in a world beyond human concerns. Michelangeli is Pygmalion, the Scherzo his Galatea. His landings are en point. The fluttering passing notes trickle so evanescently they might be light shadows. His diminuendos never fail to make dramatic as well as lyrical sense. The polonaise rhythm insinuates itself into the final pages, the stretti all supple and cleanly defined.

The three mazurkas ooze intimacy and Polish fervor, pride of place. The A Minor breaks out spasmodically then recedes into its little kernel of trilled energy. Its middle section expands in bold colors. The B Minor is an epic of sinewy proportions, alternately delicate and intricate, then brashly defiant and assertive. The camera drops behind Michelangeli to eavesdrop on his reverie. Again, those aching pianissimos and rubato through which you could drive a Buick. The alterations in touch prefigure Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. A few dabs of the handkerchief and the nationalistic pomp of the D-flat Mazurka struts and explodes in melting colors. Surging forward, pulling back, the piece is all spiritual putty under those giant hands. And finally, the ever-protean Berceuse in D-flat, a series of toccata etudes on an ostinato motive, limpidly and poignantly executed with gossamer detachment – a collaboration of creator and interpretive artist of the highest order.  I cannot speak for others, but at the final chord, I felt only Michelangeli’s humility in rendering homage to Chopin.

— Gary Lemco

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