BEETHOVEN Piano Concertos Nos.1 & 3. Michelangeli/Vienna Symphony/Giulini (DG) – INKPOT

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op.15
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op.37
Vienna Symphony conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Originals 449757-2
[76:19] mid-price

by Jonathan Yungkans
What a difference a little technology can make. Deutsche Grammophon has been slowly repackaging parts of its 11-disc tribute, “The Art of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli,” greatly improving both the recorded sound and the recording balance while consolidating the recordings more generously on fewer discs. All these benefits are especially welcome. The playing times on some of the discs were rather short, and while the sound was not terrible by any means, the remastering gives the recordings more hall sound and taming the slight hardness of the early-to-mid 1980’s digital sound. The rebalancing is also a vast improvement, changing the nature of these performances for the better, especially in the Brahms, and bringing out details that enhance Michelangeli’s interpretations all the more.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995) was very much a law unto himself as far as pianists go. An incredibly gifted technician, Michelangeli’s performances were aristocratic in spirit, fastidious in detail and imaginative in his use of tone color and phrasing. He was also extremely perfectionistic and could be highly demanding, walking out on engagements when conditions were not to his absolute satisfaction, and playing a comparatively small repertoire over and over throughout his career.

But when everything came together, few could match the penetrating insight, baronial elegance or technical finish that Michelangeli brought to the music he played. As Gramophone proclaimed in 1971 (and DG reprinted in the liner notes for the Brahms disc), “No legato scales could be more perfectly even than his, no chords more weighty, more sonorous (at all dynamic levels) or more perfectly attached, no part-playing clearer, no texture better balanced or presented with more refinement of touch and tone … piano playing of such quality really must have the highest accolade.”

The concertos on the other disc will not be for all tastes, but are fascinating on their own terms. For the Beethoven First Piano Concerto, my first choice remains Sviastoslav Richter’s RCA recording with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony (not currently available) for its dash and flair; this was Richter’s favorite concerto, and it shows in the unbridled joy in his playing, with Munch and the Bostonians throwing caution to the winds as well. Compared to that, Michelangeli, Carlo Maria Giulini and the Vienna Symphony can seem a little stodgy, but their recording does not lack merit, either.

In place of verve, Michelangeli and Giulini offer refinement, sinfully rich sound, an aristocratic temperament and general pacing that flows like oil. Giulini was always good at having his players articulate passages in ways that could make you rethink a piece. Here is no exception. Even in the first movement introduction, there are dividends to be heard. Giulini has the woodwinds play with considerable legato, emphasizing the Mozartean quality of those parts while balancing the strings so the winds can be heard clearly. And it does sound like Mozart, even if you do not make the connection between this concerto and K503, upon which Beethoven based his work.

Giulini constantly brings out details that heighten the dialogue between orchestra and soloist in interesting and eloquent ways, while Michelangeli does similar things from the keyboard. The remastering brightens the general sound quality, pointing up these details still further, while the slower-than-usual tempi, coupled with Giulini and Michelangeli’s phrasing, add a decidedly vocal quality to the proceedings. Theirs may not be the most exhilarating interpretation of this concerto, but it definitely sings, and there is great pleasure to be taken in that.

Soloist and conductor take a similar approach in the Third Piano Concerto. The opening bars gain a wonderful sense of mystery, and the general tone take on an elevated level of tragedy, but this is not the most electrifying rendition of this concerto. But then again, electricity is probably the last thing Giulini and Michelangeli had in mind at the time. For excitement I would recommend Vladimir Ashkenazy with Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Decca 417740 – mid-price – or 443723 – three discs, budget-price – for all five concertos). But for impeccably pure music-making on an Olympian scale and phrasing so vocal that it has to be heard to be believed, I would not hesitate to suggest this version as an alternate.

After hearing these discs, I can only hope that DG will remaster and repackage Michelangeli’s Debussy recordings as a two-disc set in its Originals series, and eventually offer a remastered version of his excellent Mozart K. 415 and 450 with Cord Garben and the NDR Symphony Orchestra. Until then, we have these discs, and we can always hope.

JONATHAN YUNGKANS loves good singing. He just didn’t expect to find it in a Beethoven piano concerto.

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