6 January 1920
Brescia, Brescia, Lombardia, Italy
12 June 1995 (aged 75)
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (January 5, 1920 – June 12, 1995) was an Italian classical pianist. He has been regarded as among the most commanding and individual piano virtuosos of the 20th century, among names such as Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter. He is often considered the most important Italian pianist after Ferruccio Busoni.
Born in the province of Brescia, he began music lessons at the age of three, initially with the violin, but quickly switched to the piano. At ten he entered the Milan Conservatory. At the insistence of his father he studied medicine for a brief period of time. In 1938, at age 18, he began his international career by entering the Ysaÿe International Festival in Brussels, where he placed seventh. (A brief account of this competition, at which Emil Gilels took first prize, is given by Arthur Rubinstein, who was one of the judges. According to Rubinstein, Michelangeli gave "an unsatisfactory performance, but already showed his impeccable technique.") A year later he earned first prize in the Geneva International Competition where he was acclaimed as "a new Liszt" by pianist Alfred Cortot, a presiding judge.
Apart from his musical activities, Michelangeli claimed to have been a qualified doctor, pilot, racing car driver and member of the anti-Fascist resistance during the Second World War, although he is known to have served in the Italian armed forces. He also is said to have traced his ancestry back to St. Francis of Assisi.
Michelangeli was known for his note-perfect performances. The music critic Harold Schonberg wrote of him: "His fingers can no more hit a wrong note or smudge a passage than a bullet can be veered off course once it has been fired…The puzzling part about Michelangeli is that in many pieces of the romantic repertoire he seems unsure of himself emotionally, and his otherwise direct playing is then laden with expressive devices that disturb the musical flow." The teacher and commentator David Dubal adds that he was best in the earlier works of Beethoven and seemed insecure in Chopin, but that he was "demonic" in such works as the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and the Brahms Paganini Variations.
His repertoire was strikingly small for a concert pianist of such stature. Owing to his obsessive perfectionism relatively few recordings were officially released during Michelangeli's lifetime, but these are augmented by numerous bootleg recordings of live performances. Discographical highlights include the (authorized) live performances in London of Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, Chopin's Sonata No. 2 and Robert Schumann's Carnival, Op. 9 and Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26. The "Gaspard," as well as his playing of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G set standards for those works and his reading of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4 is comparable to that of Rachmaninoff himself. His Debussy series for DG is something of a benchmark, if it is sometimes accused of being a little unatmospheric ("swimming in cool water," in Dubal's words). Several DVDs of live performances, and of a master class, are also available.
Michelangeli was something of an hypochondriac, famous for last-minute cancellations of his concert recitals. His last concert took place on May 7, 1993 in Hamburg. After an extended illness he died in Lugano.
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