About this Recording
8.112052 - MICHELANGELI, Arturo Benedetti: Early Recordings, Vol. 2 (1939-1951)

Great Pianists: Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920–1995)
THE EARLY RECORDINGS • 2 (1939–1951)


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 air force, 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 Carnegie Hall in January 1949. He then had a career of teaching and performing, and during the 1950s spent more 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.

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. 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. He recorded some superb performances of short Spanish pieces by Granados and three years later, in 1942, some by Mompou and Albéniz as well as two Scarlatti Sonatas (8.111351). It was probably between December 1939 and January 1940 that Michelangeli recorded for HMV the Waltz No. 9 in A flat major, Op. 69, No. 1, the Mazurka No. 47 in A minor, Op. 68, No. 2, and the Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 31. These were works Michelangeli played throughout his career and he recorded the Mazurka and Scherzo again some thirty years later in 1971 in a Chopin recital for Deutsche Grammophon. Perhaps this earlier recording of the Scherzo has slightly more tenderness in the second subject melody.

The other pieces by Chopin presented here were also recorded in Milan, but for the German company Telefunken for whom Michelangeli, in 1942 and 1943, recorded works by Bach, Tomeoni and Scarlatti (8.111351) and piano concertos by Grieg and Schumann. In the Berceuse he plays the right-hand melody at the beginning slightly after the left for emotional effect and generously uses rubato to shape the phrases. In fact, this is a surprisingly free performance, more like an improvisation, in which Michelangeli slows the tempo at will. The Mazurka from Op. 33 is rather lacking in rhythmic propulsion and does not sound like a dance.

Between the first recordings for HMV in 1939 and the Telefunken discs, Michelangeli set down his first major work, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C major Op. 2 No. 3, for HMV in Milan in 1941. This is a wonderful performance from the twenty-one year old Michelangeli, aristocratic and sublime from the opening, a combination of controlled powerful virtuosity and playing of the most lyrical poise. His control of the dynamics is caught well by the recording engineers and in the Adagio, although he plays with a sweet and beautiful tone, the movement never becomes cloying whilst the tempo is perfectly maintained. Michelangeli’s dexterity in the final Allegro assai is remarkable and whereas many pianists give a feeling of a struggle to maintain their opening tempo when the semiquavers (sixteenth notes) appear in the fifth bar, Michelangeli sails ahead unimpeded.

After the War Michelangeli made his New York début in November 1948 and just before this made some more recordings for EMI this time in London (8.111351). In 1953 he recorded two of Mozart’s Piano Concertos in Naples with conductor Franco Caracciolo (K. 415 and K. 488), but two years before that made his first recording of a Mozart concerto, K. 450 in B flat, in Milan with Ettore Gracis. In a letter to his father in 1784 Mozart referred to his ‘three grand concertos’ stating, ‘I can’t choose between them – they’re both concertos that make you sweat.—But the one in B flat (K. 450) is more difficult than the one in D (K. 451)—I should add that I am very curious to know which of the three in B flat, D and G (K. 453) you and my sister like best…’ Well, Michelangeli rarely sweated and in this recording his cool demeanour is evident as always.

These EMI and Telefunken recordings, made by Michelangeli between the ages of 22 and 31, show a man at the beginning of this career as an already finished artist. One can only echo what a critic wrote in 1948, ‘What a pianist! Technically, the playing is astonishing: interpretatively, here is a very great musician…’

© 2009 Jonathan Summers


Editorial Note

The difficulty of locating verifiable recording ledgers for Michelangeli’s Milanese solo piano sessions for La Voce del Padrone (His Master’s Voice) and Telefunken has made the identification of precise recording venues and dates a confusing and uncertain undertaking. The recording dates reproduced in the accompanying documentation for this Naxos release are the result of the most recent research carried out by the Italian discographer on Michelangeli’s recordings, Angelo Scottini. The previously published date (9 September 1942) for the two Telefunken recordings is now considered doubtful. It is known that on this date Michelangeli recorded an unreleased take of Chopin’s Berceuse in D flat major, Op. 57 with the matrix number 02665. However, the matrix numbers of the published recordings of the Berceuse and the Mazurka No. 25 suggest that these were recorded later, on 20 January 1943. The exact venues for the solo piano recordings on this recording are not known, though there is anecdotal evidence that some took place at the Conservatorio Verdi.

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