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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, March 2009

These early Michelangeli recordings enshrine pianism that marries technically impeccable command with a refined aristocracy that never precludes warmth. As the years went by these balances become more problematic. For some the whole aura became too remote.

These extremely well transferred examples were recorded in the years between 1939 and 1948 by which time Michelangeli had become internationally known; his New York debut came in 1948.

The Italian Concerto receives a reading of incisive buoyancy, the left hand pointing in the opening movement almost intrusive in its sharpness, its animation undoubted though perhaps over balancing. But he vests the writing with tremendous depth of tone colour and real vivacity, and the slow movement with gravity and warmth. One of his best known recorded inscriptions from this period in the Bach-Busoni Chaconne, in which he is at a diametric remove from a romantic cavalier such as Cherkassky. If one feels Michelangeli’s steelier resolutions in this, they are surely balanced by an invincible sense of direction, of dynamism and leonine power—as well as an appropriate sense of warmth.

The run of pieces by Tomeoni, Galuppi and Scarlatti was recorded between c.1941 and 1948 in Milan—though the last one, the Galuppi, was recorded in London. Given the austerity he cultivated one might be surprised by the feathery articulation that attends his delectable performance of the Tomeoni as well, indeed, as the vital buoyancy of the Galuppi. The Scarlatti sequence includes four sonatas, though they were recorded two-by-two for release on two 78s recorded roughly a year apart, one for Telefunken and the other for HMV. The three Spanish items offer a decidedly personal slant on the Iberian muse. His rubati and ‘stance’ in Granados’s Andaluza offer a very different kind of gloss, whilst his Albéniz and Mompou, though hardly less individual, are certainly engagingly played. The Marescotti Fantasque was written for performance at the Geneva Piano Competition in 1939—which Michelangeli won—and recorded by him in the same year; it’s a frenetic, fun piece. About his Brahms Paganini Variations many opinions will cluster. This is his concert arrangement in which he habitually omitted Book 1 variation 9 and Book 2 variations 9 and 14 and re-ordered Book II. The stylistic and architectural quirks have to be taken as read in a performance of this kind.

This first volume of the early recordings promised much and it delivered. The transfers and title selection are well balanced between the canonic and the less well known; the transfers and notes are fittingly first class as well.

Bryce Morrison
Gramophone, March 2009

Proves a human heart beat beneath the cool exterior of this Prince of Pianists

Michelangeli ranks among the grandest of all musical autocrats. And when his transcendent mastery is complemented by warmth, wit and charm, such additions are beyond price. Early in his career this "Prince of Pianists" (Alexander Kelly) possessed a Romantic as well as magisterial charisma, and listening to his performance of Bach's Italian Concerto with its wealth of colour, nuance and resilience is to be reminded that a human heart beat beneath that legendary froideur. What sparkle, too, in Tomeoni's G major Allegro and how he plays the arch-seducer to the manner born in Albeniz's Malagueña (a mischievous alternative to Cortot's vivacious enchantment). Granados's Andaluza is heavily but irresistibly personalised, all fun and fancy-free; hardly for lovers of a more "correct" Spanish style, while Marescotti's Fantasque (his set piece for the Geneva Piano Competition and a near relation of Abram Chasin's Rush Hour in Hong Kong) is spun off with a virtuosity as life-enhancing as it is thrilling. Michelangeli's reordering of the Brahms Paganini Variations is odd, but his performance remains of classic status (try the octave glissandi of Var. 13 in Book 1 for an example of the pianist's command). So, too, does his way with the Bach/Busoni Chaconne with his rapid tempi and lean, not-an-ounce-of-fat way with Busoni's maestoso instruction. This is an issue that all lovers of great artistry will pounce on, particularly when so enticingly offered on Naxos's bargain label. Special thanks, too, to Ward Marston's fine remastering and to Donald Manildi—what would we do without his incomparable archive housed in the University of Maryland?

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2008

History may well describe Michelangeli as the most musically gifted pianist of the 20th century, a description in keeping with his recordings made between 1939 and 1948.

He did not follow the predictable career of a keyboard virtuoso, at times withdrawing from the concert stage to concentrate on teaching, much of the 1950s being given to that element. Latterly his ill-health, or a psychological problem appearing in public, saw him cancelling as many engagements as those he fulfilled, leading to him being regard as a recluse. That he was a genius is never in question, and that he offered the degree of technical accomplishment others could only dream about is plain to hear from his recordings. Just go to the fourth track, Busoni’s arrangement of the Chaconne from Bach’s Second Violin Partita, and admire his sheer brilliance and clarity. He did not come from that age when period correctness had become important in performances of Scarlatti’s Sonatas, Michelangeli’s approach to four of these updating the style to the last century. I had not previously heard his 1948 account of the Brahms Variations on a theme by Paganini, a massive concept bristling with strength and virtuosity. It is here reproduced as originally recorded with the omission of three variations, and the order of the variations is different to that in the printed score, a change he repeated in concert performances. For that reason it could not be your library copy, but no lover of great piano performances can afford to be without it. Shorter pieces by Granados, Marescotti, Albeniz and Mompou show that he could be a very personal pianist not afraid of massaging rhythms. Made in unknown Italian venues in the early 1940s and in London in 1948, the sound is surprisingly good for the era and has been lovingly restored and transferred to CD.

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