Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

Arturo Benedetti MichelangeliThe Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920–1995) is considered one of the greatest virtuosos of the 20th century. His style is classical in the sense of classicism and in a way that is more than emblematic. Why?

Italy never totally absorbed romanticism with its emphasis on excessive emotions, irrationality, free form etc. A sense of grace, elegant beauty and formal perfection together with a preference for simplicity over complexity have often been among the components of the Italian attitude in Arts.

Michelangeli’s style though (together with Maurizio Pollini’s) personifies all this even too much. He not only provides further evidence of this anti-romanticism present in the Italian culture – due to the Italian classical heritage (not many doubts about it.) Michelangeli’s peculiar (and sacred) approach to music crosses in our view a line by breaking the balance between form and emotion, between the rational and the lyrical side of a work – a balance which is typical of the best classicism. He reaches such a controlled perfection that his performances are prodigious, true, and proverbial, ok, but they are often very chilly as well (not many doubts either.)

[Maurizio Pollini has somewhat bypassed great Romantic piano music too - going though towards contemporary music - and his style is not very far from Michelangeli's, of whom he was also a pupil]

In other words, Italian musical classicism is brought by Michelangeli to a limit where passion and musical spontaneity seem to disappear. He never lets himself go and every single note is under his control.

In fact “Michelangeli was known for his note-perfect performances” (Wikipedia). “His fingers can no more hit a wrong note – writes Harold Schonberg, a famous New York Times music critic- or smudge a passage than a bullet can be veered off course once it has been fired.”

Michelangeli’s performances of Romantic authors are therefore generally baffling. His interpretation of Frédéric Chopin‘s Ballade in G minor, one of the great works of Romantic music, can very well bring out this point, we believe:

As Squishym (a Youtube user) well observes “it sounds detached for the most part and the timing has a lot of strange hesitations for no apparent reason (perhaps an attempt to simulate emotion?)” Yes, very well said indeed.

An opinion confirmed by the above said Harold Schonberg, who wrote: “The puzzling part about Michelangeli 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.”

In Domenico Scarlatti‘s sparkling and rationally crystal clear baroque Michelangeli seems instead much more at ease. This beautifully and very fast played sonata shows all his supreme coolness.

Michelangeli was sometimes considered at his best with the impressionistic French repertoire (Debussy and Ravel). Here follows Chopin’s Berceuse, where the flaws shown in the Ballade in G minor are in our view not present because of the pre-impressionistic genre of this marvelous piece. Benedetti Michelangeli’s playing radiates here his exquisite magic.

Finally Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcription of Bach’s Chaconne in d-moll BWV 1004 for violin solo. The art of Bach, Busoni and Michelangeli combine to bring to life an awesome, unparalled musical experience. As the teacher and commentator David Dubal observed, Michelangeli “was best in the earlier works of Beethoven and seemed insecure in Chopin, but he was demonic in such works as the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and the Brahms Paganini Variations.”


Let us listen to this demonic Michelangeli (the performance here being unfortunately – and horribly – cut into two separate videos):


Other related posts:

Music, Politics and History
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

On my piano teacher, Pauline O’Connor, pupil of Michelangeli:

A Refined but Passionate Celtic Goddess of Piano Music is no More

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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ll add a few notes for reflection.

    The idea that the Italian culture is based on passion is simplistic.

    As far as Bach and Michelangeli, we had written in From the two sides of the Roman Limes (linked above):

    “Bach is a son of un-romanized Germany. Rome and the classical world are not all, of course. But I am asking myself: is this diverse historical background somewhat responsible for the fact that Bach’s music lacks sometimes … measure and grace? Is it by chance that many Italians prefer his music played by classicism-oriented performers like American Murray Perahia or, even better, Italian Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli? I for example adore Bach’s Italian Concert in F major (BWV 971) played by Michelangeli (and other Bach’s works played by him). His magic fingers add grace and equilibrium to this austere northern German music, making it sound a little bit like Mozart’s.”

    Finally (and as regards Bach’s lack of measure – or the Italian way of perceiving it) as far as Bach’s Goldberg Variations it is interesting how the Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni had suggested to cut eight variations for making the work more fit (and less fatiguing, or schwer) to a concert audience (although Busoni’s reworking is much more complex an operation than it can be discussed here).

    • UPDATE
      Neapolitan *Maria Tipo*’s Bach is another example of how Bach can be ‘corrected’ (eg made more elegant, singing etc.) by Italian performers. Martha Argerich btw thought that Maria Tipo’s playing was sensational.

  2. Thank you, Man of Roma, I couldn’t agree more with you, and I think I’ll link to this post later.
    All the best.


    P.S. What about my latest post about the exhibition “Julius Caesar – Man, Feats and Myth” (Giulio Cesare. L’uomo, le imprese, il mito), which is being held in Rome at the Chiostro del Bramante? Have you already been there?

  3. Thanks Rob. I’m looking forward to reading what you’ll write about Michelangeli.

    The exhibition on Julius Caesar? I’ll surely go there soon (I’ve been in bed with fever and bronchitis) and I think I’ll link to your post as well, although I’ll wait till I go there myself.

  4. I’ll paste here my comment on Rob’s post on Michelangeli:

    “Well, I wrote this post also from a sort of direct knowledge I have of Michelangeli’s pianism (my ideal for some time).

    My piano teacher was actually one of his best pupils. Australian, of Irish descent, she lived in Arezzo, Tuscany – since Michelangeli had lived in Arezzo for quite a long time. When coming to Italy from Perth for the first time – she told me – she was already capable of playing ALL four Rachmaninof’s piano concertos by heart and almost without effort! (I’m sure you know this music is among the most difficult stuff ever written for piano).

    So she went to Michelangeli’s who, after listening to her with attention declared that if she really wanted to become his pupil she had to start all over again from Bach’s two-voice Inventions! She was sort of annihilated. THAT was Michelangeli’s way.

    In any case, he moulded her into what she was when I first met her. I can assure you, to the great Michelangeli’s school of pianism, she could add all her Irish heart and unpredictability. She was in my view surely greater than Maurizio Pollini, but she had to end up her career for family reasons and went back to Perth.

    My best regards

    Man of Roma

    From that time I never heard of her any more. Wonder what happened to her.”

    • She is still alive and kicking and in Perth, having just turned 78 (and still teaching!)

  5. YES YES YES!! Finally a start to “Classical” music. :) Thank you! :)

  6. @Ashish
    Ah ah, a start? A bit on the hard side, I’m afraid. Glad if it can help lol :-)

    Hey, why don’t you try to listen many times to the last piece of music I propose here, even if you don’t like it at first? I mean of course the last two movies: they’re part of the same work. Could be a good initiation.

    (Bach is stern but often mystical. it could appeal to an Indian mind. No Latin stuff, as I try to explain. For the Latin and classical heritage, Italian and French music are good of course, plus Austrian music, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert. There’s of course some Germany in there but these folks were deeply influenced by Italian music. Also young Beethoven is close to Mozart and Haydn. BUT, Beethoven, who lived in Vienna, was an outsider from Northern Germany lol. He thus finished by breaking the whole edifice of classical equilibrium, enhanced German influence and boosted Romanticism, like an avalanche. History applied to arts is a drug and pure magic, although I’m aware I’m making history of music sound a bit like a comic book)

    Another approach could be to listen randomly to some Internet Western classical music radio. Random exploration. It can be allright too allowing you to discover many things you like. But we’ll get back to our start, I promise.

  7. [...] despite the surrounding notes. Let us first listen to the real thing (Maurizio Pollini’s unromantic interpretation of this romantic work) and then to a computer graphical representation of the same [...]

  8. [...] We get nourishment and peace from the perfect equilibrium of Western Classical Music: Mozart, Boccherini, Clementi, Haydn and young Beethoven. Or Italian Opera: Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti etc. wrongly called romantic, since Italian Opera is classical in its nature (and even Puccini is like that.) Interesting how Italians never totally absorbed Romanticism, their classical heritage and almost inborn sense of taste (and grace) being too tenacious (read here.) [...]

  9. [...] She in any case ‘corrected’ Michelangeli’s extreme classicism  with her Celtic passion (see my post on him – and on her, in a comment.) She lived close to Michelangeli for a long time, in Arezzo, [...]

  10. [...] writing dedicated to Pauline O’Connor's great piano teacher Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. A comment on it tells fragments of Pauline's story.] Share [...]

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