A Refined but Passionate Celtic Goddess of Piano Music is no More? No, she isn’t

Detail of a Muse with barbiton – Louvre, Paris. Courtesy of Theoi.com. Click for credits

I today – 2012-4-19 – learn that Pauline Belviso-O’Connor, the subject of this post, is ‘in full health’ and teaching piano at the University of Western Australia (see this thread). Mine was a huge mistake. I do ask for pardon.

ψ

We were blabbering over at Zeus is watching – with the blog owner and with Paul Costopoulos – about music and a supposed relationship between its rationality and a rationality of the universe. Big deal theme, I know, but crystal-clear Domenico Scarlatti’s music proposed by Zeus was much to the point.

I like this topic these days, and I have discussed it also with Lichanos, Dafna, Richard, Andreas, Cheri, Sledpress and others.

In any case Zeus said:

“Perhaps this is where the Pythagoreans went off the rails, but the Existentialists could help us a little. [...]

I replied something and then Paul observed:

“The video does enhance the complexity of the music. However the very slow motion of the tempo somewhat offsets the brisk musical tempo. A bit unsettling, I dare say.”

I agreed and said:

“You are very right Paul. And, Zeus, Paul, since in music I much prefer a real soul to any philology [I was about to propose a piano performance, but in Scarlatti's time there were no pianos, or very few], this to me is the perfect Scarlatti:

Paul:

[Marta] Argerich, and a young Argerich at that, what a marvelous and sensitive pianist.”

At that moment, I don’t know, I made like a mistake, not sensing what was about to happen – mind, this post risks being pathetic, but let me go through with it.

I said:

“Paul, Zeus, yes, she was, and still is, one of the Latin goddesses of piano.

Her way of playing reminds me of another goddess, my beloved piano teacher, not at all inferior to her, oh no, though not as beautiful.

Pauline O’Connor was an Irish Australian, a bit graceless maybe especially when compared to very attractive Argerich – O’Connor was a giant by the way – but more powerful, more refined and definitely majestic, only less spontaneous at times due to Benedetti Michelangeli’s too premeditated art.”

[Argerich had instead Vincenzo Scaramuzza as a piano teacher, an Italian Argentine pianist who justly "stressed to her the importance of lyricism and feeling," born in Calabrian Crotone - Κρότων, the city of Pythagoras, it's like this ancient sage's ghost is stalking me ...]

She in any case ‘corrected’ Michelangeli’s extreme classicism  with her Celtic passion (see this post on Michelangeli, on Italian classicism – and on her in a comment.) She lived close to Michelangeli for a long time, in Arezzo [where I met her], and, after ending up marrying a Sicilian, a certain Belviso, she went back to Perth.

Her leaving Italy for good depressed me quite a lot. I had lost a great mentor, a big treasure, and, at 18, I guess I was in love with her a bit too.

When I finally found a trace of her 1 month ago here, now that I’m pasting the link, much to my affliction I realise she’s no more.”

What a moron, I’m so absent-minded that I had saved the link to the Australian web page on her but hadn’t read it well. A bit of a blow to me, I will admit.

So, remembering that – in my effort to get back to the guitar a bit – and having found on Youtube a piece of music that in some way is her, or a part of her, I mumbled:

So this is a tribute to her. A totally different music, yes, but it strongly (and weirdly, music is weird) reminds me so much of this Celtic passion side of her, and, ok, not at all of her Michelangelian supreme refinement, but passion, isn’t it often better than refinement? Well, I’d say, the 2 things should be often well intermarried for most rich results, as they certainly were in wonderful, unique, fantastic Pauline.

[And these darn Australians, they make you pay for everything! I'll get those paper clips ... and put her picture at the head of this post, damn!]

ψ

[I was wronging the Aussies, registration to the National Library of Australia is free, but you got to be Australian to do it  :-( ]

ψ

Related posts:

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

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

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.”

Demonic.

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

Ψ

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

From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

Colosseum in Rome

A few days ago, in a pizzeria very close to the Colosseum, I met a couple from Lübeck, Germany. She was a Catholic redhead with communicative and laughing blue eyes, born in Cologne. He was a colourless Protestant, with meditative and sad eyes of a pale blue, a vague resemblance with pilot Schumacher.

“It is a sort of Little Italy, Cologne, – he said – while I am the Germanic barbarian beyond the Roman border.”

Bizarre how the proximity of the Colosseum makes just any tourist talk history.

We didn’t chat for a while though, each of us minding our own business, kind of reluctant to human communication.

Suddenly, I really don’t know why, I opened up -a full-bodied red wine is to be held responsible? The fizzy Roman air? -, I gave this friendly and sincere look to them and shot these point-blank, out-of-the-world 4 sentences:

“I worship the music of Bach. Bach is sovereign. He is a great honour to German civilization. German music is eternal.”

I am unfortunately aware I must have sounded totally nuts. Four solemn and incautious sentences were now suspended in the Roman breeze.

They looked at me in total amazement:

“Also Italy has created beautiful music, really. But isn’t Bach too heavy, too stern?”

No idea if they meant “too stern for an Italian” or were just talking in general.

“Heavy? Oh no, no, – I said – how can the most magnificent among composers be heavy? Bach is not heavy. Bach is a-l-l.”

His pale eyes, from an initial mistrust, sweetened up. Her smile became even warmer than before. Actually the three of us were a little moved (and probably high.)

Some additional sporadic sentences (she was proud of this German pope … they wanted to know if I was a real Roman …) concluded this little Roman scene. We said goodbye after exchanging our addresses.

ψ

Now I have friends ready to greet me if I ever get to Lübeck, a city to which young Bach arrived, if I am not wrong, after many kilometres on foot, so eager to learn all he could from his idol musician, the organist and composer Buxtehude.

I have to check better. Just found this on the Web:

“Im Spätherbst 1705 reist Johann Sebastian Bach nach Lübeck, um den norddeutschen Komponisten Dietrich Buxtehude zu treffen und von ihm zu lernen.”

Sintetico but enough.

Sorry if I showed off some of my German (no big deal after all lol), but how can one not love this language: of course its difficulty (and the lost wars) didn’t help its expansion.

A German friend once noted, a bit disconsolate:

“Even just the adjective, Deutsch, is difficult both to write and to pronounce. We should have changed it. But we have been stupid. Sometimes we are not as intelligent as people think.”

One last thing.

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.)

Michelangeli’s magic fingers add grace and brilliance to this austere northern German music, making it sound a little bit like Mozart’s.

ψ

Update (September 21, 2013)

Italian Neapolitan Maria Tipo’s Bach is another example of how Bach can be played (corrected? made more singing etc?) by Italian performers.

ψ

Italian version

Related posts:

Permanences I
Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds
Music, Politics and History
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

See also:

How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 123 other followers