The most exciting piano recording ever?

In my previous article, written in Swedish, I made some remarks about what I call the national idiom in music. Just in order to modify my own stance – I love contradicting myself – I would like to draw the attention also of my non-Swedish friends to one of the least nationally idiomatic interpretations ever of a work by maybe the most promininent exponent of national romanticism in musical history, Edvard Grieg. It’s his popular Piano Concerto I am talking about and I am referring to the 1965 live performance of it in London by pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Conductor was Rafael Frübeck the Burgos, admirably leading the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The event was recorded by the BBC, which also commercially issued a CD, including also some Debussy Préludes from Book I.

Michelangeli can, with his cool technical perfection and elegance, be described as the Ferrari of all modern pianists. Together with Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini – who also were his students – Michelangeli represents an aesthetically and not least technically unsurpassed objectivist modern classicism and virtuosity, in his case bordering to coolness and even aloofness, according to some critics.

But there is nothing cool and aloof in this his rendering of the Grieg Concert! It’s like a Liszt letting loose his full artistic frenzy on the keyboard, almost brutal if it wasn’t for Michelangeli’s superhuman technical control and – as one reviewer puts it – ”Apollonian stance”. An incredibly exciting and at the same time, if you allow the expression, aristocratically noble performance. You will find glowing superlatives in the many comments about it on the internet and I am not going to repeat them here. Let me just quote a review in a ”Gramophone” recording guide:

”Somehow you feel it must be possible to deliver the hackneyed opening flourishes of the Grieg Concerto with real abandon and impetuosity, to get the orchestra to respond to them with genuine ardour, then for the soloist to combine flow, virtuoso dash, fantasy and noble eloquence and to crown the structural highpoints in a way that lifts you out of your seat. Yet until you hear a performance like this one you never quite believe it can be done. A sense of joyous rhapsody buoys up Michelangeli’s playing from first note to last, yet everything is founded on a bedrock of high intelligence, taste and natural authority. Witness too the fabulous tone colours he draws from the instrument. His slow movement is by turns balmy and ecstatic, and the finale has terrific drive. And the virtuosity…! If your hair isn’t standing on end in the finale’s coda you need an urgent medical check-up…This is a performance that entirely merits the hysterical cheers that greet it.”

Michelangeli’s most famous recording remains the 1959 performances of tbe Rachmaninoff Fourth and the Ravel G major Concertos which EMI labels as ”one of the greatest piano recordings ever” or something to this effect. I fully endorse the  marketing labelling   –  the Rachmaninoff  has never been equalled and might never be  – but I don’t hesitate to rank this Grieg Concerto as a top contender.

”Grieg must be rotating in his grave”, a pianist friend of mine remarked after first hearing this Michelangeli playing of the concerto – and my friend meant it as describing a positive astonishment on the side of the composer if he had heard this interpretation. Indeed we are very far away from misty Norwegian fjords and mountains – if such a connotation was at all in the composer’s mind when this concerto was taking shape, and we hardly even pay notice to the tones of Norwegian folk melodies and idioms which might be embedded in the musical fabric. If there is any geographical or natural connotation at all in this performance it would rather be a sundrenched Mediterranean landscape, and a vivid Latino spirit projected by the Italian pianist and the Spanish conductor.

In the end however, this is rather one of those Michelangeli manifestations of absolute ars gratia artis.


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