About this Recording
8.111351 - MICHELANGELI, Arturo Benedetti: Early Recordings, Vol. 1 (1939-1948)

Great Pianists: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920–1995)
THE EARLY RECORDINGS • 1 (1939–1948)


Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was born in Brescia, Italy in 1920. He first began to study the violin at the age of three, but around the age of ten began piano studies at the Milan Conservatory with Giovanni Anfossi, graduating with a diploma in piano at the age of thirteen. During his teenage years Michelangeli studied medicine to placate a father who did not want him to take music as a career, but he returned to music and by the age of nineteen was of a high enough standard to win the first International Piano Competition in Geneva in 1939. The unanimous jury included Alfred Cortot and Ignacy Paderewski. For the following few years Michelangeli taught at the Martini Conservatory in Bologna and gave concerts. In 1940 he gave a sensational début in Rome where he displayed an extraordinary technique and musical insight, but World War II interrupted the beginning of his career; Michelangeli joined the Italian airforce, but as soon as the war was over, he returned to the concert platform. His first appearance in London in 1946 was with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Albert Hall where he played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat and César Franck’s Variations Symphoniques.

Michelangeli first toured the United States in 1948. He made his orchestral début at Carnegie Hall in November with the New York Philharmonic and Dimitri Mitropoulos playing Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54, and made his solo début at the same hall in January 1949. He then had a career of teaching and performing, and during the 1950s spent more of his time teaching. By 1957, on his return to London, he was already being described as ‘the distinguished young pianist from Italy’.

Michelangeli spent the rest of his career touring the world, cancelling as many concerts as he gave, and building an aura of aloofness and mystique around himself.

After his London appearances in the late 1950s he toured South America and the Soviet Union, and in 1965 toured Japan. The following year he toured extensively in America, his first visit in fifteen years. In 1973 Michelangeli began teaching at a summer school at Villa Schifanoia near Florence, and in 1980 he visited Japan again but played only one of his five scheduled concerts. In 1988 he had a serious heart attack during a concert in Bordeaux, but continued his performing career until shortly before his death in Lugano in 1995.

Michelangeli’s first recordings were made for HMV in Milan in 1939. No doubt prompted by his win at the Geneva International Piano Competition, HMV recorded a very free interpretation of Andaluza from the Danzas españolas, Op. 37, by Granados where Michelangeli characterises each section and uses a soulful singing tone to great advantage. Michelangeli’s virtuoso technique is displayed in a recording from the same session—Fantasque, a work specially written in 1939 by Swiss composer André-François Marescotti (1902–1995) as a test piece for the Geneva Competition. During 1942 Michelangeli recorded more Spanish music for HMV in Milan. Again he perfectly captures the Spanish idiom in both Canción y danza No. 1 by Mompou and Malagueña from Rumores de la calata by Albéniz with subtle rubato and a wonderful singing tone. Also recorded at this time were two Scarlatti sonatas, not as one may expect scintillating virtuoso pieces, but two of Scarlatti’s more reflective and contemplative works. The following year, in January 1943, Michelangeli recorded some more Scarlatti sonatas for the German label Telefunken, the Sonata in D major being more in Scarlatti’s humorous and jolly vein. The other Sonata in B minor is played faster than usual by Michelangeli; that other great player of Scarlatti sonatas, Vladimir Horowitz, used to take this at a leisurely andante. Also recorded at this time was a short work by Pellegrino Tomeoni (1721–c.1816) and Bach’s Italian Concerto, BWV 971. For the same label, Michelangeli also made his first commercial concerto recordings—those by Grieg and Schumann.

It was probably while on his way to make his New York début in November 1948 that Michelangeli went to the EMI Studios in Abbey Road, London. Here on 26 October he recorded the Variations on a theme of Paganini, Op. 35, by Brahms. Two takes were made of each side with the second take held in reserve. Less than a month later on 23 November EMI made transfers of these four sides ‘to improve quality’, and further transfers were made on 31 March 1949. One reviewer, as late as January 1950, wrote that ‘The recording is somewhat deficient in top frequencies, but adjustment of tone-controls will afford reasonably satisfactory reproduction.’ When Gramophone magazine reviewed the recording in July 1949, however, the reviewer wrote that, ‘The technicians have recorded all this quite superbly. The piano tone is wonderfully full and rich…’ The reviewer reminisced about hearing Busoni’s pupil Egon Petri play this work and recommended his recording, and also drew attention to the fact that Michelangeli changes the order of the variations and does not play the work in its entirety. ‘My present advice is—if you do not have the Petri recording, then buy this new Michelangeli set; if you do own the former, still buy these new ones, for they are simply magnificent! So magnificent are they that I only wish they were complete. I gather that Michelangeli has recorded them as he usually plays them at concerts and that he was not restricted at all to four sides.’

The following day, 27 October 1948, Michelangeli returned to record the Chaconne in D minor for solo violin by Bach arranged for piano by Ferruccio Busoni. For some reason, on 18 August the following year transfers were made ‘from tape’, but the copies used for this transfer are all of takes 1A made in October 1948. He also recorded two short works at this session—the Presto heard here, by Italian opera buffa composer Baldasssare Galuppi (1706–1785), its humour being reminiscent of Scarlatti, and Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau which will appear on a future volume. These EMI recordings, made when Michelangeli was 28, and even the earliest recordings made when he was nineteen show that as a young man he was already a finished artist. One can only echo what a critic wrote about his recording of the Brahms Paganini Variations—‘What a pianist! Technically, the playing is astonishing: interpretatively, here is a very great musician…altogether this is the most exciting piano performance and recording I have heard for many a long day.’

© 2008 Jonathan Summers



Italian Concerto, BWV 971 11:53

Recorded in Milan, 22 January 1943
Mats. 026797/99; Cats. Telefunken SKB 3320/21

Violin Partita no. 2
in D minor, BWV 1004
Recorded in London, 27 October 1948
Mats. 2EA 13371/74; Cats. HMV DB 21005/6

Allegro in G
Recorded in Milan, 22 January 1943
Mats. 026800; Cat. Telefunken SKB 3321

Presto in B flat

Recorded in London, 27 October 1948
Mat. 2EA 13376; Cat. HMV DB 6859

Sonata in D major, Kk.96 (L.465) 5:09
Recorded in Milan, 20 January 1943
Mat. 026793; Cat. Telefunken SKB 3290
Sonata in B minor, Kk.27 (L.449)
Recorded in Milan, 20 January 1943
Mat. 026794; Cat. Telefunken SKB 3290
Sonata in C minor, Kk.11 (L.352)
Recorded in Milan, probably between
December 1941 and February 1942
Mat. OBA 4872; Cat. HMV DA 5380
Sonata in D minor, Kk.9 (L.413)
Recorded in Milan, probably between
December 1941 and February 1942
Mat. OBA 4873; Cat. HMV DA 5380

Variations on a theme by Paganini, Op. 35
Recorded in London, 26 October 1948
Mat. 2EA 13367/70; Cats. HMV DB 6909/10

Note: Michelangeli omits Book 1, Variation IX, and Book II, Variations IX and XIV. We have presented these variations in the order that Michelangeli recorded them. This is also the order he used for his concert performances.

Danzas españolas, Op. 37
Recorded in Milan, probably between
November and December 1939
Mat. 2BA 3534; Cat. HMV DB 5354

Recorded in Milan, probably between
November and December 1939
Mat. 2BA 3533; Cat. HMV DB 5354

ISAAC ALBÉNIZ (1860–1909):
Rumores de la caleta, Op. 71
Recorded in Milan, probably between
December 1941 and February 1942
Mat. OBA 4871; cat. HMV DA 5432

FEDERICO MOMPOU (1893–1987):
Canción y danza No. 1
Recorded in Milan, probably between
December 1941 and February 1942
Mat. OBA 4870; Cat. HMV DA 5432

Special thanks to Donald Manildi

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