This CD is taken from the vaults of BBC radio and is part of their 'BBC Legends' series. The performances here are mostly from a Royal Festival Hall recital in 1982, a recital in which Michelangeli was reportedly running a fever but refused to cancel; considering his reputation for canceling for all kinds of reasons, we should be glad he went ahead with this one because it is superb. Also included is a performance from 1959 of one of his specialties, Ravel's 'Gaspard de la nuit.'
That 'Gaspard' is one of the most astonishing performances I've ever heard. Michelangeli, who had a reputation for adding somewhat idiosyncratic accents and dynamics, plays this one absolutely straight and it is one for the ages. This is the same performance included in the Philips 'Great Pianists of the 20th Century' but a comparison shows that this BBC release is actually in somewhat better sound. Granted, it is from 1959, but the sound is really quite good and I don't think anyone will feel they've missed anything in the 45-year-old sonics. Just listen to how he brings out nuances in 'Ondine.' I heard things (a slight prefiguration of the tolling bell in 'Le gibet,' for instance) that I'd never heard before. 'Le gibet' is devastating in its desolation. 'Scarbo,' while not as fast as Argerich's celebrated recording, is cleaner than hers and this is, amazingly, a reportedly un-retouched LIVE performance. Pianists of all stripes can only gape in amazement at this man's technique. He not only plays extraordinarily cleanly (listen to the repeated notes in 'Scarbo') but the variety in his touch, even in this 1950s sound, is simply astounding. This performance is definitely one for every music-lover's collection.
In the 1982 recital there are two Beethoven sonatas--Michelangeli didn't play all that many Beethoven sonatas, but these two were specialties of his. There have been quibbles about his over-emphatic early Beethoven, but you won't hear that from me. His emotional approach, with emphasized sforzati and dynamic contrasts, strike me as equally valid to rather more lyrical approaches. The andante and variations first movement of the Op. 26 sonata is a good deal more dramatic than one generally hears it, and considering that this is the only Beethoven sonata without a sonata-allegro movement, this movement takes the place of one; Michelangeli's choice to play it dramatically helps make it the linchpin of the sonata. The slow movement, a funeral march, is wrenching in its intensity. (A brass band arrangement of this movement was played at Beethoven's funeral.) The Op. 7 sonata, usually played in a classical manner, is also quite intense and frankly I think it benefits from this approach. I will admit that I am smitten with Michelangeli's playing and willing to accept pretty much whatever he does. One reason, aside from his monumental technique, is that he is a thinking musician whose choices are not lightly taken. This is not to say that there aren't lyrical passages in this early sonata; the largo second movement has lyricism to spare, and Michelangeli's control of the slow harmonic motion of this movement is a lesson in concentration for other lesser pianists.
Michelangeli was a genius at the music of Debussy and we can be thankful that he extracted the 'Hommage à Rameau' from that composer's first book of 'Images' for this recital. This is not watery, feminine Debussy; it has spine and form that it often is deprived of by other pianists. It is magical.
I can recommend this disc with complete confidence.