Tuesday 13 June 1995
Born near Brescia, in Italy, in 1920, he began learning the violin at the age of three, and studied that instrument at the Venturi Institute, in Brescia, but graduated to the piano and studied at the Conservatorio Verdi, Milan, obtaining his diploma at the age of 13. In 1939 he won the Grand Prix at the Geneva Piano Competition, the beginning of a distinguished if unpredictable career.
Aristocratic and almost Lisztian in appearance, Michelangeli would come on to the platform looking cadaverous and sepulchral. His playing, often controversial, but always displaying an exemplary economy of movement, belonged to no school but his own. Individual and arguably perverse in some respects, his style was direct and yet restrained, warm and yet cool. His technique, which could on occasion be immaculate, was, one sensed, the fruit not only of a prodigious talent but also of hard labour. He would say to this students that to play the piano "One has to work to feel your arms and back ache all over. Music is a right for those who deserve it." Exacting words; those of a man who had followed them.
Sometimes Michelangeli seemed rather selective in his application of prescribed dynamics, and yet he followed the spirit of the music if not the letter. This was particularly true in Beethoven, and those who were fortunate enough to attend the recital he gave at the Royal Festival Hall in April 1982, after a long absence from the London platform, will remember the forthrighthness and individuality of the Opus 7 and Opus 26 sonatas. It was however, in Debussy and Ravel that he was supreme; he had an ability to evoke a colour world in which he achieved astonishing effects, combining sustained sound with a pearly clarity. He could mould the texture like melted wax into the subtlest shapes. "It has always been my world," Michelangeli once said of Debussy's works. "This music has always been my music from the very start."
Of his recordings, frustratingly few - a commentary on the relative smallness of his repertoire, but including works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin - the most familiar and most admired is the one he made of Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto, and Ravel's G Major with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Ettore Gracis. Almost definitive performances, they have an effortless sweep and assurance, a total command of sound and colour which even the idiosyncratic desynchronising of hands cannot undermine.
Michelangeli made his name internationally with a series of triumphant concerts in the 1940s, which took him to the United States in 1948. In 1949, he was chosen by an international commission to be the official pianist for the 100th anniversary of Chopin's death. After a series of appearances in the 1950s, he was forced to stop playing for several years because of a lung ailment. He resumed his international career in 1959, gave acclaimed concerts in Moscow and Japan, and put on a piano festival in Brescia from 1964 to 1969.
A man of many talents, he distinguished himself as a car racer, a champion- class skier, and an aeroplane pilot.
In later years he gave fewer recitals, and preferred to remain in Italy, where he settled at Pura, near Lugano. After a lifetime of indifferent health in which he even suffered a heart attack during a concert, he made his final London appearance in 1990.
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, pianist: born Orzinuovi, Brescia 5 January 1920; died Lugano 12 June 1995.
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