Composer: Claude Debussy
- (01-12) Préludes - Book 1, L. 117
- (13-18) Children's Corner, L. 113
- (01-12) Préludes - Book 2, L. 123
- (13-15) Images - Book 1, L. 110
- (16-18) Images - Book 2, L. 111
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano
Date: 1971 (L. 110, L. 111, L. 113), 1978 (L. 117), 1988 (L. 123)
Label: Deutsche Grammophon
It is of course disappointing that Michelangeli’s association with DG in the last 20 years of his life failed to produce a richer harvest, but given the nature of the man an abundance was probably never to be expected. Fallow periods were a feature of his career. In 1988, when the Second Book of the Debussy Preludes came out, it was his first studio recording for eight years. There were three Debussy issues from 1971 on, and DG have now comfortably reformatted them on to two CDs. They are also putting out an 11-CD set – “L’arte di Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli” – comprising all his DG recordings, plus some much earlier Schumann licensed from the BBC, but if you’re going to be selective I’ve no doubt that for a first choice it’s his Debussy you should go for.
What would the composer himself have made of him, I wonder? Of Debussy playing his own music Alfredo Casella said “he made the impression of playing directly on the strings of the instrument with no intermediate mechanism – the effect was a miracle of poetry”. This is not Michelangeli’s way. He can certainly be poetic and produce miracles but his manner is not ingratiating. Generalized ‘atmosphere’ doesn’t interest him. His superfine control is put at the service of line and movement, above all, and the projection of perspectives. It is as if he were intent on defining the space the pieces occupy. He gives you a sense not just of foreground and background but of many planes in between. Try “Feux d’artifice”, the last of the Second Book of Preludes(second disc, track 12), for instances of what I mean: the murmuring ostinato at the beginning (leger, egal et lointain) is ‘positioned’ with absolute precision, and as you’re drawn into the picture it’s as if you can see exactly where everything is coming from. This is perhaps most vivid at the very end, where Debussy wonderfully conveys the effect of activity petering out and a snatch of the Marseillaise floats in de tres loin to signal the ‘fin de spectacle’. A pianist does indeed need spectacular manipulative abilities to realize these last nine bars: how pleasing when a great player reminds you that they are humanly possible!
Michelangeli was capable of a transcendental virtuosity, not always noticed, that had nothing to do with playing fast and loud and everything to do with refinement, and it is well in place here – in many other Preludes and especially in the first two Images of the Second Book; also, less expectedly, in “The snow is dancing” fromChildren’s Corner. The clarity of texture and the laser-like delineation can sometimes be disconcerting if you’re accustomed to a softer, more ethereal style, but they have a way of making Debussy’s modernism apparent and, to my ears, thrilling. He sounds here as if he has had nothing to do with the nineteenth century.
I loved the Images and Children’s Corner when they first came out, in 1971, and still think them among the finest versions recorded. But I have reservations about some of the Preludes, particularly in Book 1. The sound is rather close and dry – maybe how Michelangeli wanted it. He uses as little pedal as he can get away with – Marguerite Long reported that Debussy, like Chopin, considered the art of the pedal as a “sort of breathing”, but you don’t get much sense of that here. In the Breton seascape “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest” do you really want to hear every note?
The dryness also throws into relief the hardness of attack, and I do sometimes wish the etched quality of line-drawing could give way to something warmer. Character, in general, is on the chilly side. Although the teasing rubato in “La serenade interrompue” is spot on, this is playing which doesn’t often smile at you. “La danse de Puck”, slow and measured instead of light and capricious, would make anyone think Puck’s dancing days were over long ago. The plainness is all the odder in that the ‘aerial’ numbers – “Ondine”, for example, and “Les fees sont d’exquises danseuses” – are usually to be numbered among Michelangeli’s most successful.
There are people who regard Gieseking as unparalleled in this music, but after a quarter of a century I feel sure that the best of Michelangeli, similarly, will run and run. Today’s generation of Debussy pianists will be expected to work from a less corrupt text, quite rightly, and I dare say to be more scrupulous in their treatment of rhythmic detail; but they will have far to go before they can rival the penetrating qualities of Michelangeli’s Debussy at its best. He could take your breath away and he was illuminating in this composer in a rare way. What a pity he never recorded the Etudes.
-- Stephen Plaistow, Gramophone
Claude Debussy (22 August 1862 – 25 March 1918) was a French composer. Along with Maurice Ravel, he was one of the most prominent figures associated with Impressionist music. Debussy was among the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his use of non-traditional scales and chromaticism influenced many composers who followed. Debussy's music is noted for its sensory content and frequent usage of atonality.
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (5 January 1920 – 12 June 1995) was an Italian virtuoso pianist, widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. He was famous for his flawless technique. Owing to his perfectionism, relatively few recordings were officially released during Benedetti Michelangeli's lifetime. As a teacher, his pupils included world-class artists as Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich and Ivan Moravec.
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