Lynn René Bayley
, March 2011
I’ve only heard a few recordings by Michelangeli, but those few I’ve admired a great deal, particularly the Beethoven Concerto No. 1 with Giulini (DG), therefore my natural curiosity led me to review this video recital. His secluded private life forced publicity-seekers to “shroud his life in mystery,” when in fact he was simply a homebody who really didn’t enjoy public concerts or recording as much as audiences did. He never adjusted to the wild adulation that greeted his arrival as well as his playing, once telling his wife, “an hour later, and I feel even more lonely than before.” Yet he helped create this mystery by the very fact of being reclusive, and of sometimes canceling concerts because he didn’t like the piano provided.
“The puzzling part about Michelangeli,” Harold C. Schoenberg wrote, “is that in many pieces of the Romantic repertoire he seems unsure of himself emotionally, and his otherwise direct playing is then laden with expressive devices that disturb the musical flow.” David Dubal argued that he was best in early works of Beethoven and the Brahms Paganini Variations, but unsure of himself in Chopin and “cool as a river of ice” in Debussy. Yet everything is simply wonderful at the start of this recital, which opens with two of Beethoven’s best early sonatas—No. 11 and the “Funeral March” No. 12. Michelangeli finds exactly the right balance between lyrical elegance and drama, giving a pianoforte feeling to his performances despite using a modern instrument. One feature I find fascinating from an interpretive standpoint is that he plays the “Marcia funebre” movement in a very staccato fashion, almost objectivist in feeling, letting the listener draw his or her own impressions of the “death of a hero” without imparting any particular feeling of his own. Although valid, it’s very different from most, giving the sonata more of a classical than a romantic interpretation. The allegro finale, on the other hand, fairly dances with a bubbling ebullience.
The quirky melodic line of the op. 22 Sonata’s first movement is given a taut reading, the notes so perfectly bound together that no matter how percussive the passage or how ebullient the approach, it sounds like a continuous musical thought from first to last (excepting the luftpause before the final chord of the exposition, just before the repeat). This movement reminds me of what I like so much about his Beethoven Concerto No. 1 performance, a propulsive forward momentum, emotionally charged fortes, yet also a singing tone—sort of a fusion, one might say, of Schnabel and O’Conor. The second movement is elegant and touching in its own way, the minuet dancing yet energetic, the last movement playful without sounding frivolous.
I was curious to hear his approach to the Schubert sonata because I generally find most of Schubert’s sonatas oddly rambling, not as clear or focused as his chamber works or symphonies. I’m happy to report that Michelangeli’s approach is as energetic, well bound, and cohesive as his Beethoven. To my ears, only Schnabel is this good in the Schubert sonatas, which saddens me to realize that neither pianist recorded very many of them. Indeed, it might be my natural prejudice in this regard, but I find that this Schubert performance makes this DVD valuable to have, particularly if you enjoy this composer’s music. In Michelangeli’s hands the long, sometimes rambling first movement has a clarity of structure and energetic feeling that I hear as closely related to the Wanderer Fantasy, which I dearly love. The only weakness is that not even Michelangeli can make it sound shorter, and it is a movement that overstays its welcome.
The Allegretto is positively charming in his hands, having almost the character of an old-fashioned court dance; I can’t recall hearing any Schubert allegretto sound quite this way before. The little march melody in its center is played in an almost detached style, but it fits. The movement ends with an equally lilting minuet. The energetic, short phrases of the sonata’s final Allegro vivace are played with a combination of Schubertian elegance and Beethovenian élan, yet in this movement the odd juxtapositions of thematic material made me scratch my head. The two moods just seem too incompatible to me to work as a continuous musical thought, though Michelangeli plays them well.
Brahms’s four early Ballades are among his finest piano pieces, creating mood as much as they are structurally interesting. Here, I miss (to some extent) that feeling of mood, since Michelangeli plays them with the same structural clarity and alternations of elegance and power as he does his Beethoven and Schubert, yet precisely because of these attributes, I believe that he makes the music more accessible to those who listen for structure and a dramatic undercurrent. That being said, I am only partially pleased by the Ballade No. 2, which seems to me (as Dubal described his Debussy) a few shades too cool.
In a sense, then, this recital confirms his strengths described by Schoenberg as well as the occasional weaknesses described by Dubal. Michelangeli combined power and charm in a way unmatched by many other pianists, but veered away from an emotional involvement that bordered on sentiment or Russian-type passion. It was a style he shared with very few others—perhaps Gulda and Gieseking come to mind—but it made him who he was.