The twentieth century was filled with many great classical music virtuosos brought forth by the power of the recording and television media. The gift of a audiovisual repository such as YouTube allows the faint memory of a great performer to once again for all of us to come into full bloom for his performing genius. A particular gem is the available musical moments of one Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Italy’s other great Michelangelo. Michelangeli was born in the province of Lombardy in the town of Brescia in 1920 in the northern rolling hills of Italy that seem to produce so many creative intellects. Like his fellow northerner Michelangelo, Michelangeli was capable of precision beyond the mortal man, and a difficult social nature. He was said to be incapable of a wrong note or musical “smudge”, and early in his career accused of being too technical and missing the inherent “soul” of the musical composition. The available record of Michelangeli’s performances shows how off base this interpretation was. Michelangeli was a technical virtuoso, but his base strength was as an interpreter, no where more apparent than in his unique performances of the French Impressionists Debussy and Ravel.
Michelangeli did not enjoy public performance, but was a premier performance musician. His enormous technique and creative impulse overwhelmed any stage disdain. Television provided the perfect compromise of the quiet solitude of a studio to allow him the freedom of inward reflection, while the performance of such a personal nature could be viewed by thousands. No absolute measure of greatness exists, but greatness is clearly at work in every Michelangeli interpretation. Debussy becomes a shimmer of light splintered through forest brush, Ravel a kaleidoscope of color that rises at dawn, Brahms a quiet but inexorably powerful river of dreams.
Arturo Michelangeli was a member of the great triad of Italian piano virtuosos of the twetieth century, along with Maurizio Pollini and Ferrucio Busoni, that helped place Italy again at the epicenter of discussion of history’s great nursery’s of civilization. We are reminded thourgh Arturo’s playing that the blood coursing through the western creativity is a most human one. It is worthy of the protection of its diverse vitality in a world that continues to demand a bland globalist view of humanity.