THE MAN WHO WOULD BE SCARBO: REMEMBERING ARTURO BENEDETTI MICHELANGELI by John Bell Young
The author would like to thank the following individuals for their help and generous contributions to this article:
Camille Antoinette Budarz
Mary Ann Cialdo
The International Piano Archives
Valarie Alexandra Valois
PART I: LE GIBET WATCH
PART II: ROOTS AND RHIZOMES
PART III: "RITMO, RITMO" – NO LITTLE BENEDETTIS
PART IV: SPHINX
PART V: DES PAS SUR LE DISQUE: THE LAST GASPARD
PART VI: THE STEEL SHROUD
Wie das schwebt! Wie es auf Erden nich ist!
(How that hovers-as if not of the earth!) -Franz Liszt
PART I: LE GIBET WATCH
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who was 75 when he died of heart failure in Lugano on June 12, 1995, made an impression on audiences akin to that of Rasputin on the Empress Alexandra. With the smoldering demeanor of an archimandrite, he radiated importance. His command of the stage, no less impressive than his command of his instrument, proffered a figure larger than life; enigmatic and austere, Michelangeli suggested something greater than the sum of his parts. A Michelangeli recital was more than a concert; it was a religious experience.
Walking briskly on stage to a waiting Steinway, his gait was swift but certain. A certain economy of gesture signaled an immense authority before a note was played. As the audience held its breath, he cultivated quiescence, and thus amplified the opening hush. Without so much as a twitch, he resembled a tiger ready to pounce. With his craggy face and pristinely trimmed mustache, Michelangeli cut an urbane, swarthy figure. Offstage he was a heavy smoker, and favored the pungent tobaccos of Turkish cigarettes or Russian papirosi, which drooped languidly from one corner of his mouth. In his later years he abandoned the slicked-back hair so popular among young, post-war bon-vivants in favor of a natural style that lightly dusted his ever-present houndstooth blazer and black pullover. This was his uniform; he was convinced that their collective enclosure protected him "against cold and warm".
While he may have ignited the imaginations of those who heard him on record, he enchanted others who heard him in concert. By all accounts he mesmerized his listeners. That he did so was never simply a matter of his transcendent technique, or due to the limitless variety of his sound. What endeared him to so many for so long was a mystique that enveloped him like an aura throughout his life. In concert Michelangeli was a man who inhabited the realm of concept, as if his body were there by accident. If there was a disembodied quality to his playing, it was also visceral, and allowed nothing to stand in the way of musical expression. Michelangeli conjured music as much as he played it; it seemed to spring whole from his psyche at the moment of performance. Every phrase was an odyssey, abundantly detailed and lovingly articulated. His musical journeys promised adventure and always delivered.
Devotees of the Italian pianist extended well beyond his friends, colleagues and the international coterie of piano students who idolized him. His appeal was considerably broader and a consequence of his artistic power. "For months I wanted tickets to Michelangeli’s  comeback recital at Carnegie Hall," recalls Joseph Fabio, a New York based real estate developer. "I was a victim of his previous cancellations, here and abroad," he says, "but from the moment I heard them, I was hooked by his recordings of the Ravel G major concerto, and Rachmaninoff’s fourth. It is because of Michelangeli that I developed a love for classical music that, until then, I really had not known."
"Later, my wife and I managed to get orchestra seats for his recital at Carnegie Hall. Michelangeli had such an aura; when he appeared on stage you could hear a pin drop. No one dared breath. There’s something very powerful about silence when it is yours to command.
"Afterwards we went backstage to greet him and get his autograph. Leaning against a wall, he was dressed from head to toe in black. His eyes shifted from left to right and back again, while his head remained motionless. As he surveyed the room he pursed his lips, making a curious clicking sound with his tongue and his teeth, like a quiet kiss.
"At that moment he struck me as a combination of Marcello Mastroianni and Bo Ridley, Robert Duvall’s character in the film To Kill a Mockingbird…"
What Fabio experienced that evening was a renewed Michelangeli. The recital at Carnegie signaled the beginning of his long awaited return to the international concert circuit after a long absence. It was orchestrated by Jacques Leiser, an EMI record producer who later became the pianist’s agent. "He was among the few ‘elect’ pianists who could inspire," says Leiser "and I was inspired."
Carnegie Hall was packed that evening with pianists and critics. It has been reported that Vladimir Horowitz, who rarely attended piano recitals, made himself obscure behind a curtain in a private box. Faubion Bowers, in those days a free lance music critic and commentator for the New York Times, the Village Voice and CBS television, was not there. But when Michelangeli performed again in 1968, Bowers didn’t care for his repertoire. "It was a childish program," recalls Bowers "He played Debussy’s Children’s Corner and other works you’d hear on a student recital. But the moment he began to play, I forgot all about it. There was such marvelous color in his playing. Now there was a great pianist."
In far away Russia, at a time when Kosygin was still a household name, the renowned pianist and Shostakovich confidante Margarita Fyodorova grabbed one of the few remaining tickets to his 1964 recital at the Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. "I remember well the impression made by his marvelous mastery and the fantastic refinement of each piece he played," she recalls. "The artistic results somehow seemed to produce themselves without any obvious effort, or laborious struggle, as if off stage. His performance on stage astonished and enraptured me but did not warm me. There was not in him that warmth that emerges from a performer and flows from him to the listener at the moment of creation and inspiration. Without question the artistic gift of Michelangeli exerted its influence on the intellect and understanding, but at that time it was unable to ‘rouse my soul’. But with the passing of the years, as I listen to the numerous recordings of this colossal musician, I submit myself more and more to what I hear. And now I can affirm: this is genius. His Scarlatti, his Ravel, his trills and passagework – about this no words can suffice. One need only listen - and genuflect!"
Mind altering drugs and political assassinations may have defined the turbulent 1960s for many people, as it should, but pianists also remember the era for Michelangeli’s rare recitals. James Baker, a graduate student in music at Yale when Michelangeli performed there in 1968, recalls the excitement surrounding the recital. "I had seen the ads for it, but had never heard him", says Baker, now Chair of the music department at Brown University. "I had no plans to attend until an undergraduate friend of mine fell ill; he couldn’t use his tickets and gave them to me.
"When I arrived, I discovered, much to my satisfaction, that my seats were front row center. Michelangeli came on stage and began to play. It was the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. I knew immediately that something magical was happening. At first he was very pale and drawn. But then he played Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit. It was a miraculous experience."
A pianist himself, Baker remembers something peculiar about Michelangeli’s technique. "From where I was sitting it looked as if he ‘braced’ some of his fingerwork, holding the thumb beneath the keys when he wanted a special tremolo effect. I was amazed. But his dynamic range was enormous. His sonority spanned an ultra-pianissimo to a huge, orchestral fortissimo."
Michelangeli had already achieved legendary status when Robert Helps, the distinguished American pianist and composer, arrived in Europe in 1953 to study with Nadia Boulanger. Helps had heard all the rumors and hyperbolae: Michelangeli as the 20th century’s answer to Franz Liszt, as the new Paganini, as the greatest pianist of all time. To see for himself, Helps took a night train from Paris to Bologna, where Michelangeli was scheduled to play.
"I was knocked out by his performance of Scarlatti and Chopin," recalls Helps. "Also on the program was Debussy’s Images, which was extraordinary, especially Poissons d’Or." Fifteen years later, Helps heard Michelangeli again at Carnegie Hall. "At times his playing irritated me. Certain repertoire did not seem to stimulate him, but he was fantastic in everything else. The Chopin B flat minor scherzo captivated me, and his performance of the Berceuse was the most wonderful I’ve ever heard."
Cord Garben, a conductor and pianist who doubled as Michelangeli’s record producer for Deutsche Grammophon, was part of Michelangeli’s inner circle. "Musically he was rather easy to handle, but all the things besides were more than complicated" says Garben in lightly accented English. "When the honey he needed for his tea was not the right one, he made a small scandal, catapulting it over the table and complaining that his tea was spoiled…"
Carmelita Hinton, a prominent American educator and founder of the prestigious Putney School in Vermont once said that tea has at least one advantage over coffee; you can see to the bottom of the cup. But in Cairo and Rome espresso rules. Mario Feninger, a pianist, writer and authority on Busoni, recalls his own encounter with Michelangeli:
"In 1946, I left Egypt and went to Europe. Passing through Rome, I heard that Benedetti Michelangeli was going to play at the Basilica di Massenzio, so I rushed there and heard him play Liszt’s Totentanz. It is not difficult to describe what I heard; the impression he made on me is really indelible. I will never forget the steely and absolute certainty of that beginning! It was evident that he had a complete mastery of the keyboard. I was stunned by the sound he obtained: almost ‘blinding’. After that, my idolatry shifted from Horowitz to Benedetti Michelangeli.
"I started hunting for records of his and came upon a very early Swiss recording of some Scarlatti sonatas which surprised me; the sound was velvety and hushed, and there was a soft fluidity which enthralled me. It was not any more the midday glare of an implacable sun but the delicate, tender light of a subdued, northern sunset.
"Benedetti Michelangeli was capable of obtaining at the piano the sounds he wanted. He had the ability to change the actual sound of the piano. Was it an acquired ability or had it been taught to him? Did he teach these technical secrets to those who consulted with him or did he take them with him to his grave, like Busoni?"
Maybe not. If anyone knows the answer, it’s Harry Chin, a devotee who has amassed the largest collection of Michelangeli matter this side of Lugano. Chin relates a strange but characteristic tale about the elusive maestro:
"My closest contact with Michelangeli occurred when I passed him on the street some hours before he was to give a recital at the Theatre Maisonneuve in Montreal during Expo ’67. He must have sensed that I knew who he was, because he ducked into a luncheonette along the way. My daughter, who was with me at the time (we had slowed down to let him pass), said he was watching us from there. The all-Chopin recital he gave that evening was a marvel, but [sometime later] he had an off-night when, on December 7, 1968, he played before a talkative audience at Hunter College Auditorium in New York."
On January 20th, 1965, the Theâtre de Châmps Elysée in Paris became the site of Michelangeli’s triumphant return to the musical mainstream. Here the pianist wouldn’t have to worry about a noisy public that coughed uncontrollably or unwrapped candy in the middle of the quietest passages; in the concert hall the French are nothing if not respectful. According to Jacques Leiser, the event caused pandemonium. The audience was stunned by his Herculean reading of the Totentanz. So was the renowned pianist, Idil Biret.
"What an extraordinary ambiance there was that night," she recalls. "Everyone seemed crazed. The entire European music world showed up. Michelangeli played the Totentanz. I was hypnotized, mesmerized throughout. It was so magical and so devilish at the same time. I was so struck by it, and though it’s difficult to describe the experience, it is impossible to forget. He played the Schumann Concerto soon after that, but it wasn’t the same. It was very well played, of course, but it was a question of mood…"
"I also heard him in Hamburg in the late 60s, when a strange thing happened. I was seated on stage with a friend. Michelangeli began to stare in our direction. At first I feared we had disturbed him in some way, so we changed our seats, but then he began looking around for us and, when he spotted us, he smiled. Later, when we met in the green room, he asked ‘You are a pianist, no?’ Some weeks later I ran into him in the restaurant wagon of a train…Extraordinary…"
How right she is. For where Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli is concerned, there is always something extra, but absolutely nothing ordinary.
PART II: ROOTS AND RHIZOMES
Exaltation, the essential focus of Michelangeli’s musical approach, resists description. Though writers can wrap a language around musical experience, something vital inevitably gets lost in the translation. While an exploration of his aesthetic sensibility may yield imperfect results, it demands an examination of the central European traditions, artistic and familial, from which he evolved.
Though Italian by nationality, Michelangeli’s roots were Slavic. He proudly admitted his Croatian ancestry. "You can say ‘di anima Slav, di cultura Austriaca…’ I’m of Slavic origin and still a bit of a Slav," he confessed to Dominic Gill in a 1973 interview. "I’m certainly not Latin." Slav or not, he felt less at home in Italy than in Austria, which he called "my country".
Michelangeli maintained ties to Brescia, Italy, the site of his birth on January 5th, 1920, throughout his life. But in the mid 1960s an unfortunate incident with a former student nearly led to bankruptcy; a messy lawsuit ensued over a failed partnership and a disputed recording contract. The Italian courts, ignoring his cultural status, confiscated his home and property. Hurt and insulted, he later told John Gruen of the New York Times that "it bores me to play in Italy. Of course, I’ve played there in the past, and I’m often asked to play there. But it doesn’t interest me in the least. I’ve not played in Italy for 10 years, and I need not tell you why!"
Still, he couldn’t resist clandestine visits to Brescia, a simple village that, following its sacking by the Spaniards in 1511 gained prominence as an arms manufacturer in post-Renaissance Europe. Fond of alluding to his aristocratic lineage (a claim that remains unsubstantiated) Michelangeli described his family as sympathetic to his musical proclivities, if not particularly encouraging. His father, a barrister and amateur musician had been born into a long line of professional diplomats, and expected his son to follow suit.
This was not to be. His turn away from the family tradition began with his first musical encounter at age 3. His first instrument was not the piano, but the violin; only a year later, at age 4, he enrolled at the Venturi Musical Institute in Brescia, where he also studied the organ. But at 10 his violin playing came to an abrupt halt. Tuberculosis, aggravated by a shoulder ailment (which would later develop into chronic arthritis) compelled him to abandon his violin studies. Fate intervened in a peculiar way: his brother Umberto Benedetti assumed the role of family violinist and, though eventually eclipsed by Arturo’s fame, became the concert-master of the Chamber Orchestra of Milan.
Michelangeli was a late bloomer. His pursuit of a professional career in music began at 13. After early studies with a certain Signore Anfossi, he graduated with honors from the Milan conservatory. Like Bach, he contemplated a musical career in the service of the church, but went a step further when, like Liszt, he entered a Franciscan monastery in Laverna; he never took his vows, but remained there for a year. It’s hardly far fetched to imagine the experience was sobering. Long before penetrating the religious ecstasies of late Beethoven, or the paradisiacal sonorities of Ravel, Michelangeli, surrendering to his faith, found in Laverna a training ground for spiritual contemplation.
On the heels of Germany’s march into the Sudetenland in 1939, Michelangeli savored his first major victory, winning the Geneva International Piano Competition. Only two years earlier he placed 7th in the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels, conceding defeat to two Russians, Yakob Vladimirovitch Fliyer and Emil Gilels, and an English woman, Moura Lympany (then known as Moura Johnston). That was the last time anyone would call Michelangeli a loser. Alfred Cortot, a juror in Geneva, predicted a great future for this audacious young Italian who took credit for his own training. Cortot, a kind of musical Tiresias, knew how to pick ‘em, having forecast, more than a decade earlier, Claudio Arrau’s luminous future.
The Geneva Competition launched his international career. But Michelangeli declined to take advantage of it, accepting instead a professorship at the Martini Conservatory in Bologna. At the same time he studied medicine, at first to please his parents (who remained skeptical of his musical prospects), but then because he enjoyed it. "Medicine has always interested me, and my closest friends are doctors," he would say later. " But we don’t talk about medicine, only about music."
Like many musicians just starting out, Michelangeli felt insecure. In case of unexpected calamity, the life of a surgeon would prove a respectable alternative, one which also required intelligence, good reflexes and a deft pair of hands. Luckily for the music world (and perhaps to the detriment of the medical one) he gave it up after five years of study, without earning a degree.
With World War II underway, Michelangeli pursued yet another love, racecar driving; for him it was a metaphor for control. His participation in the Mille Miglia auto race did not result in victory, as has often been reported. But the lightning quick reflexes and unruffled confidence required by racing translated into an approach to piano technique that outwitted risks and gave it its edge; the higher the stakes, the greater the control. Years later his friend and colleague, the ex-patriot Russian pianist Nikita Magaloff, would chide him for "driving his sportscar like a madman. It’s a wonder that he is still alive."
Michelangeli saw the war through the eyes of a pilot, a partisan and a prisoner. "I’m a pilot above all," he declared. "A pilot; then a doctor; and only then, maybe, a suonatore." (player). Michelangeli remained an independent spirit, resisting conformity and the mindless regimentation of the fascists. He quit the Italian air force to join the Resistance. Little is known about his eight months of incarceration by the Nazis, from whom he is reported to have escaped. But according to Roy McMullen in High Fidelity magazine, the pianist’s flight from his captors was made in "spectacular fashion."
As the war ended the pianist’s star began to rise. Word of his piano wizardry began to spread, and students flocked to him from all over the world. The lucky few whom he accepted (never more than 40 per season) were the envy of the pianistic community. Teaching became central to his artistic life; he established a piano institute (or International Academy, as he called it), first at Bolzano, then in Arrezo, and finally at the Villa Heleneum in Lugano. Over the years his roster of students read like a who’s who in music, and included Maurizio Pollini, Ivan Moravec, Martha Argerich, Jorg Demus, Andrzej Wasowski and Walter Klien. Throughout the 1960s, a number of less celebrated but impressive talents formed part of his exclusive inner circle.
Michelangeli played only infrequently in public after his American debut at Carnegie Hall in 1950. (Harry Chin points out that Michelangeli did not stop performing altogether during this time, as has been frequently reported; he played in South Africa and intermittently in Europe) In 1955 he made international headlines following his refusal, as a juror at the Chopin Competition in Warsaw, to accede to Adam Harasiewicz’s win. He lobbied vigorously instead for a then little known Russian, Vladimir Ashkenazy. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that 30 years later, Martha Argerich would duplicate her teacher’s behavior, when she defended a rejected Ivo Pogorelich). As if to prove it was nothing personal, Michelangeli later welcomed Harasiewicz to become his student at Arezzo.
Emerging gradually from his cocoon in 1964 Michelangeli once again tested international musical waters, venturing behind the Iron Curtain for a tour of the Soviet Union. "What strikes one is the precision of each movement, of each tone, of each nuance," wrote Rostislav Zdobnov, a music critic and director of the Glinka Museum in Moscow. "If you close your eyes, you forget you are in a concert hall; you might think you are listening to a superbly engineered recording in which no errors are possible. This is amazing. But this is the art of the intellect as distinct from the art of spontaneous creation on the stage..." Grigori Kogan of Sovietskaya Muzika reported the pianist's Chopin playing possessed a "special charm…such pianistic mastery we haven’t heard since the days of [Josef] Hofmann. "
In 1964 Jacques Leiser, then a young executive with EMI Records was assigned by Phillips Records to negotiate a 10 record contract with the reclusive pianist. Leiser flew to Brescia, unaware that the maestro was already contemplating a return to the concert circuit that would bring to an end 10 years of semi-retirement. Cautious but cognizant of opportunity, Michelangeli at first demurred. "If I make these records, do you think they’ll sell?" he asked. Leiser, not yet the savvy impresario he would later become, shot back with the unerring instincts of a broker. "Yes, of course, but they’ll sell a lot better if you return to performing again outside Italy." This provided the opening in which dialogue could flourish. "And do you suppose you can find some concerts for me, too?" Rising to the challenge, Leiser assured Michelangeli he could. With that, Leiser had engaged the first client of a roster that would eventually include Sviatoslav Richter, Jean Philippe Collard and many other prominent artists.
Astonished by Michelangeli’s cooperation, Leiser was no less impressed by the confidence the pianist had invested in his as yet untested managerial abilities. But Michelangeli imposed one condition, hardly unreasonable, that "a suitable piano can be found for me." Still, Leiser points out that even with this world class pianist at his disposal, there were substantial risks. "Many presenters and orchestras assumed he had retired," Leiser recalls. "It was Catch 22. I had one of the world’s greatest living pianists, but nobody wanted him. They were skeptical about his reliability because of his reputation for not showing up."
The gamble paid off. Only two weeks later, after an initial rejection, Leiser had engaged Michelangeli, for a fee of $2000, to perform with the Societé de l’Orchestre du Conservatoire de Paris. Ironically, Michelangeli was asked to replace another pianist who had cancelled. The conductor on this occasion was Georges Pretres, and on January 20th, 1965, the Grieg Concerto and Liszt’s murky Totentanz became the national anthem of his return.
The concert was a triumph. Attended by prominent political figures, a coterie of marquises and a delegation of bejeweled comtesses, there were also, according to Time, "more pianists per square foot than ever before assembled." Bouquets of chrysanthemums and roses flowered the stage, tossed there from rococo balconies by legions of admirers, accompanied by some two dozen curtain calls. Invitations poured in from the world’s leading orchestras. Michelangeli was indeed back. A year later, on January 20th, 1966, he returned to play in Carnegie Hall for the first time in 15 years. A few days earlier his performance of Beethoven’s Emperor with William Steinberg and the New York Philharmonic drew raves, and was captured on tape by a musical bootlegger. Unfortunately, his recital wasn’t, but his readings of Chopin, Bach-Busoni, Beethoven and Debussy enchanted a new generation of concertgoers, who hoped these concerts presaged the first of many American tours.
The hopes of his fans were in vain. By the early 1970s, Leiser and Michelangeli had parted ways. Over the course of their professional relationship the pianist enjoyed every advantage. Leiser had long ago assured him he would arrange concerts whenever and wherever Michelangeli liked, provided he honored his commitments. For the first couple of years he never missed an engagement. But by the late 1960s, says Leiser, "he went back to his old habits, canceling on short notice. I told him he didn’t need an agent to do that."
The 1970’s fully restored Michelangeli’s reputation for canceling. He also gave up teaching, explaining that "it was a thing of fantasy…the situation and the ambiance had to be just right, and it isn’t anymore. At the time it was a way of life for me. Finally it tired me out." But his reasons for canceling were more complex, and neither his agents nor his public were willing to tolerate them. "He was dedicated, not capricious," notes Leiser. "If he couldn’t deliver 100% he would cancel; he wouldn’t accept 99%." From Michelangeli’s perspective, ideal conditions for performance – a great piano, a comfortable climate, acceptable acoustics –were indispensable. "Anything is better than the horrible acoustics at [New York’s] Lincoln Center," he once grumbled. "The hall there is like a coffin." Anything less than ideal betrayed disrespect for art, and a presenter who dismissed his demands as extreme was greeted with icy indignation.
Chronic arthritis was often to blame for his sudden withdrawals. It could flare up without warning. In 1977 a chill in the Salle Pleyel in Paris forced him to quit the stage in the middle of a recital. The French are testy audiences to begin with, and on this occasion they were hardly amused. But as Leiser observes, where an unforgiving public is concerned, "he has no right to be ill, because he is Michelangeli."
When he did play, he traveled with two Steinway concert grands and his personal technician, the sartorial Cesare Augusto Tallone (who was also one of Italy’s leading piano makers.) It was a routine not without danger; during a 1965 tour of Japan one of the pianos was accidentally destroyed, smashed to bits by inattentive handlers on an airport tarmac.
The price of his stratospheric standards was dear. According to Leiser, he played only 17 concerts world wide in the 1966-67 season, "Everybody thought he was playing 80 concerts a season, and it looked as if he was, because he was playing all over the world. That he limited his engagements to such an extent was hardly the frivolous gesture of a male prima donna, but an exercise of artistic authority. For Michelangeli, concert cancellation was neither an act of malevolence nor a matter of caprice; he never wanted to cancel as much as he felt compelled to. This allowed him to place demands on himself to which he alone could rise. If he bowed out of an engagement, it was for the same reason he may have initially declined to accept it in the first place. If his concerts and recording sessions were rare events in the eyes of the public, for the pianist himself artistic evolution was no less sacrosanct.
Massive publicity, followed by massive cancellations, preceded a scheduled tour of North America in 1977, where he was to play in New York, Chicago, Toronto, Miami, Montreal, Dallas, Cleveland, Washington and Los Angeles. Though by then his duties to Michelangeli were already history, Leiser had no regrets. "He changed managers like he changed shirts. In spite of the obstacles I was faced with as his agent, it was a great experience and a privilege to have known him. He could be the devil incarnate at times, but he was also an angel: soft spoken, charming and generous. But it was always drama with him…"
At the invitation of Deutsche Grammophon, Michelangeli returned to the recording studio in the late ‘70s. The project comprised a series of albums devoted to his core repertoire: music by Debussy, Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms. His producer Cord Garben recalls with amusement the session for the Debussy Preludes. "He played the whole program and then asked for the corrections, which he made immediately. That was all! Preparation time in the studio took about three days, especially for mechanical adjustments on his two instruments. He could never decide which one to use. He had no interest in the editing procedure and authorized me to make the edits wherever I wanted them. Once he accepted the hall, he accepted the advice of his engineer."
When recording Michelangeli was a stickler for privacy. Not only was the studio itself off limits to non-essential personnel, but so was the entire building. With the exception of his producer, an engineer, a technician, a personal assistant and a single record company representative, he refused to allow anyone to get near him. "Even attendance by DG’s chief executives was strictly forbidden," notes Garben.
A set of three Beethoven concerti (1,2, and 5), performed in concert under the baton of Carlo Maria Giulini and the Vienna Symphony was released to widespread critical acclaim in the mid 1980s. These were filmed and later broadcast on European and American television. According to Garben, Michelangeli’s collaboration with Giulini was an unhappy one. "It went very badly," he says "because of Giulini’s habit of getting perpetually slower."
Obtaining the pianist’s approval for the release of his own recordings proved troublesome for his handlers. In 1975 he refused to give Deutsche Grammophon permission to issue his recording, with Carlos Kleiber, of the Emperor Concerto. Here Guilini fared better. "The approval of the Emperor [with Giulini]" says Garben, "took place in his jeep while driving over the mountains of Lugano." Evidently this offered Michelangeli one way of speeding things up. "And he approved the Beethoven 3rd in his home on a cheap radio recorder," protests Garben, "while his expensive equipment stood only five meters away."
Long since divorced from his wife, Giuliana, a former student, Michelangeli spent his last years with a female companion in Lugano, playing only a few concerts at festivals in France and Switzerland. In the liberated climate of the time, his renewed scarcity provoked rumors of cocaine addiction and homosexuality. But a 1988 concert at the Grande Theatre of Bordeaux silenced his detractors. It was to be one of many recitals he gave for charity throughout his career, and on this occasion it was in aid of flood victims.
Instead, the concert became the site of a major heart attack, suffered on stage in the middle of Debussy’s Ondine (not Bruyéres, as Alain Lombard incorrectly reported in the July 1995 issue of Le Monde de la Musique). His moment of crisis occurred in bar 24 (retenue). Rather than stopping cold, he remained in musical character, lingering on the lone sonority of the dominant. Though in unimaginable pain, he allowed the chord to vibrate and fade out, as if it were bad luck to release it.
Calmly and with unbeleagured diffidence, he whispered an audible "Veneti!!", and was ushered out to hospital. In all of this there’s a spooky metaphor at work that may have done more to save his life than any drug or surgeon. As the musical site of his greatest agony, Ondine became the aesthetic equivalent of a near-death experience. Though it was Ravel’s, not Debussy’s vision of the enchanted water nymph Ondine that Michelangeli came to be identified with, the myth behind the title is the same. At that moment in Bordeaux the sultry siren of the mists called out to him. "Vieni, vieni," she whispered as he evoked her spirit in sound. "And when I responded that I loved a mortal, sulking and spiteful she shed some tears, broke into laughter and disappeared in a sudden storm…"
PART III: "RITMO, RITMO" – NO LITTLE BENEDETTIS
In the mid 1970s Michelangeli closed the curtain on more than 30 years of teaching. Looking back on his efforts with satisfaction, a little humor and no regrets, he reflected with a kind of wistful pragmatism. "Teaching should be a full time occupation," he said, "and now I’m done with it. I must say, some of the best pianists of the current generation came to work with me. But some were afraid to think!"
Those who aren’t afraid to think revisit questions that every pianist wants to know: what was Michelangeli’s secret, how did he cultivate such a flawless technique, and what informed his ideas on teaching?
Though some may find it disappointing, the fact is he had no secret, and even less of a method. "No special technique," he told Dominic Gill. "My students trust me; I make myself understood. I’ve never used a method. The idea I get from the student himself. In any case every physique has different needs…what is valid for a male is not necessarily valid for a female, because the muscular structure is so completely different."
Michelangeli valued the individual above all. "I don’t want to weave a tapestry of my students according to some set pattern. I find out about each one and try to develop his personality as I see it, but I’d never dream of trying to produce a carbon copy - least of all of myself. That would be idiotic. More than idiotic: criminal!"
Blessed with a magical imagination and the reflexes of a super computer, technique for Michelangeli was a concept, not an occasion for athleticism. It embraced considerably more than an ability to navigate one’s way around the keyboard. It referred even less to the generic but superficial definition that equates technique with mechanical prestidigitation. He believed that technique extends to issues of color, sonority, articulation, balance, tempo and inflection. It presumes the interpreter has made a distinction between sound and substance, message and meaning. Any notion of dividing technique into physical prowess on the one hand, and interpretive acumen on the other was in his view not only naïve, but ludicrous. One was a function of the other. From this perspective, the mechanics of piano playing collapsed on to musical meaning as surely as light on to a black hole.
The privileged few who studied with him, however briefly, agree that Michelangeli was a compassionate teacher, concerned and disciplined. He disavowed long-winded explanations and intellectual rationalizations, preferring to telegraph ideas through metaphor and innuendo. Mary Ann Cialdo, a pianist and actress who coached with him for six weeks in Arezzo in 1964, remembers him as "a master story teller in sound." For Michelangeli’s rarified listening apparatus, music was as much a visual experience as it was an aural one.
By no means was his approach to teaching cavalier. On the contrary, it was nurturing. Though his students represented the piano world’s crême de la crême, he viewed his role as that of a guide, not as a didactic authoritarian. Teaching, he explained was "incidental, not a job at all," and "A kind of vice…because it wastes my time, and doesn’t’ give me anything in return. Nor do I expect it to give me anything in return. On the contrary, it has cost me a lot of time and money."
Indeed, Michelangeli never charged a fee for lessons, assumed the burden of the institute’s overhead and expenses, and provided room and board for his young charges at elegant chateaux. "There is an old Italian saying," he mused, anointing himself in semi-seriousness, "that when everything else fails, one turns to the good Jesus, who teaches free."
Students were expected to embark at dawn on a daily regime of practice and study. Punctuated by meals occasionally prepared by Michelangeli himself, the schedule at the International Academy was rigorous, following a tradition established by Liszt in Weimar nearly a century earlier. "I cannot teach," Michelangeli told Time, in 1965, "if I cannot also teach the art of living and cooking.
Unlike Liszt and so many pianists who followed, Michelangeli rejected master classes as a form of instruction. "In a master class you perform, you impose your will as a maestro, " he argued. "My students must become themselves, not little Benedettis." Students were never permitted to sit in on the lessons of others. He often administered lessons like last rites, sometimes without warning and as need demanded. (One student, Valarie Alexandra Valois, reports being roused out of bed for a lesson at 5 o’clock in the morning. "He was an early riser," she explains, "and I wasn’t!") Those talents that appealed to him the most were given several hours a week, while others had to settle for 30 minutes here and there over the summer.
Lydia Kozubek, a Polish pianist and student of Michelangeli from 1958 to 1963, is the author of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli: Man, Artist and Teacher, published in Japan in 1992. To date, Kozubek’s is the only book available on the maestro’s "method" – or lack of it.
"He disliked the word ‘artist’, which he considered dilettante," says Kozubek. "He preferred the word ‘executant’, or ‘player’ [suonatore]. ‘I teach only logic, not talent’ he would say. ‘Logic is the relation, the declamation, between the notes!’" With regard to tone production, Kozubek recalled that Michelangeli vigorously opposed "heavy" playing. "For him, sound had to be in proportion to style," she noted. Physical relaxation in its conventional sense only aroused his suspicion, and could not be trusted. A comprehensive technique, in his view, was above all a matter of imagination and coordination.
"Relaxation, that is, just throwing the hand down on the keyboard arbitrarily, indicates a lack of control," says Kozubek. "The hand is not the center of motoric activity, but aids the fingers, which must remain active, if not always at the same time. While there is a certain energy in the fingers, it is in the wrist that sound is controlled. Michelangeli used the wrist like a caress." Though most of his students would deny that he was ever so specific about mechanical matters, Michelangeli is on record about psychological relaxation. "If one never worried about doing something that requires such infinite care and skill, one would be an idiot. The relaxed ones are the idiots. There’s always the unpredictable element, the possibility that something may go wrong. "
Of all Michelangeli’s students, it is Kozubek who offers the most specific information about his technical theories. Yet, without casting any doubt on the accuracy of her memory, Michelangeli’s technical advice, for the majority of his proteges, remained inconsequential next to his interpretive insights.
"The maestro was totally committed to every note, " says Renato Premezzi, who began his studies with Michelangeli in Arezzo in 1959, continuing them into the 1960s on a Fulbright. Now a professor of piano at Beloit College in Wisconsin, Premezzi recalled what his teacher told him about the opening of the Schubert B flat major sonata. Playing through it, the residue of his work with Michelangeli was immediately audible: the bronzen tone, the luxurious length of notes allowed to exfoliate in the fullness of their sound and values; the restrained, yet fluid tempo that pays homage to pedal points; and the refusal to bump into the initial downbeat with an accent.
In The Romantic Generation, Charles Rosen points out that classical rubato, as a function of musical structure, "was essentially an expressive form of ornamentation, of delaying the melody note until after the bass had been played." Rosen observes that certain early 20th century pianists, such as Paderewski, abused rubato, thus legitimizing mannerism. Some pianists seemed "unable to get their hands to play together." But Premezzi, eager to draw attention to Michelangeli’s unique interpretation of rubato, noted that Michelangeli adapted and perhaps modernized such mannerisms, routinely allowing the bass to "set up and enhance the treble, and thus enrich the dimensions of sonority." His recollection is plausible insofar as Michelangeli himself characterized rubato as simply "a way of breathing."
Michelangeli’s assessment of American pianism was severe. "I prefer not to do an orthopedic job," he told Jan Holcman a 1960 interview in the Saturday Review. "But unfortunately, in the majority of cases, it is absolutely necessary, especially with American pianists, who bang too much and play too fast." The standards he set for his American students were higher than those he imposed on others. Among the few Americans he handpicked to study in Arezzo, a few became outstanding exponents of his musical philosophy, if not famous suonatori in their own right.
Camille Antoinette Budarz, who joined Michelangeli’s academy in 1959, became one of his first American students. Noting that he required students to practice with doors and windows closed to avoid bothering the neighbors, Budarz remembers close-quartered lessons during which Michelangeli would "dab himself constantly with a handkerchief soaked in No. 4711 Eau de Cologne, while perspiration rolled freely down his face – with no open windows!"
" ‘Ritmo, ritmo!’ – that was his most frequent comment," says Budarz, who worked on Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie during her first summer in Arezzo. While the suggestions Michelangeli so neatly penned in her score are sparse, it’s not difficult to imagine his soft-spoken basso swelling up in a crescendo of instance to drive home a point.
"Sometimes he seemed aloof, but nothing escaped him," says Budarz. "For example, he recommended that a crescendo be built slowly, tensely and again, ritmo, that is, rhythmically, with a full orchestral sonority and without banging. He especially emphasized the importance of legato fingering for a singing line; the pedal alone cannot create a beautiful tone. He demanded clean pedaling. But it was his insistence on precision of musical inflection that made the greatest impression." According to Budarz and others, Michelangeli also recommended exercises by Pischna and Philippe, as well as the Gradus. At first this might seem to pose certain contradictions to an approach that emphasized interpretive issues. Whatever the case, it’s sufficient evidence that Michelangeli didn’t abandon so easily the 400 year old tradition that invested heavily in the conventions (and wisdom) of finger training.
As for the transparency of his sound, always so vibrant and alive, Michelangeli offered his own explanation. What lurked behind the bronzen sonorities he drew from the piano was a Brahmin quiescence where a thousand colors prevailed. "I found my own way of playing the piano," he said. "I discovered that the sounds made by the organ and the violin could be translated into pianistic terms. If you speak of my tone, you must not think of the piano, but a combination of the violin and the organ." Perhaps it was from the organ that he derived his ideas about pedaling. "The pedals are like my lungs," he explained to a Time reporter. Three notes with the right pedal work can become another world."
For Michelangeli, like Maria Callas and Herbert von Karajan, sound was a matter of breath and resonance, to be cultivated in the context of a tempo that allowed it to blossom. Like Heinrich Neuhaus, the great Russian pianist and pedagogue (and the teacher of both Richter and Gilels), he adapted practice habits designed to enhance musical expression. Those who knew him report that he practiced slowly with great expression, emulating what the Russians call intonatsiia. Intonatsiia is best defined as the dynamic energy that informs intervallic relations; it is an exponential procedure that renders affective expression intelligible and governs the manner of inflection and articulating even the smallest motivic cells." In short, intonatsiia refers to what goes on between the notes, and is the guiding principle of musical speech.
His transcendent technique was a natural consequence of a transcendent musical concept. "I do not play for others, but only for myself in the service of the composer. It makes no difference whether there is an audience or not; when I am at the keyboard I am lost. And I think of what I play, and of the sound that comes forth, which is a product of the mind." Renato Premezzi recalls Michelangeli’s strange ability to envelop himself in a trance before a concert; so great was his concentration that he could make himself impervious to stimuli not directly related to music.
Following a recital he gave in Chicago in the late 1960s, Michelangeli consented to hear a gifted young pianist on the recommendation of her teacher, Renato Premezzi. Valarie Alexandra Valois came well prepared. That his student had trained her certainly didn’t hurt; in that sense, Michelangeli was her musical grandfather.
Not one to be intimidated, Valois immediately captured his attention with her readings of a late Beethoven sonata and Debussy’ L’isle Joyeuse. Impressed by playing that he described as "so quiet inside", he invited Valois to join him at his summer corso in Lugano, selecting her from a pool of more than 500 applicants.
Valois now reflects on the gentility of a man who treated pianos like people. Once, while practicing at the Villa Heleneum, a key stuck on a new Petrof grand, Russia’s answer to the Steinway. Taking note of the problem, he counseled Valois to consider her own disposition, not the instrument’s. "You see, you don’t love the piano enough," he quipped. "If you love the instrument, the key will no longer stick." To prove it, he took his place at the rogue keyboard, played a few bars from Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze, and sure enough, the problem key was no longer a problem.
Beneath the dour, frowning exterior the public mistook for the real man, Michelangeli had a sense of humor, and it found easy expression in the company of Valois. The press was in part responsible for his churlish mystique, and Michelangeli encouraged it. The monotone he adopted for interviews was his version of Garbo’s dark glasses. The press saw only what he wanted it to see. In this Michelangeli discerned an advantage: the public can read anything it wishes into a voice devoid of expression.
But as Valois discovered, levity in the household of this famous pianist was subtle, not jocular. "He enjoyed demonstrating the idiosyncrasies that distinguished one pianist from another," she recalls. Assuming a posture of the utmost seriousness at the piano, and choosing an appropriate musical example, he would lean towards the bemused spectator and say: "This pianist does this, this one does that, and I do this!" One can only imagine the effect of the third variable.
He could be equally merciless about pianists whose playing he felt failed to convey a composer’s message. Asked once to name his favorite pianists, he tersely replied "Sono tutti morti – they are all dead!" Nevertheless, he never made a secret of his admiration for Cortot, and also Richter, with whom he eventually developed a warm friendship.
Concern for the professional as well as personal competence of his proteges was no less important to Michelangeli than their piano studies. He refused to compromise on issues of preparation. "A recital is made on what has gone on before, not by what happens while it is being played. What I really regret is seeing so many people face the public before they are ready. That’s why I insist my students work even harder and longer than they themselves think is necessary. A pianist is only really ready when he has enough strength and material to last the rest of his life."
Who then are the heirs to Michelangeli’s aesthetic sensibility? The Swiss pianist Dag Achatz (b. Stockholm, 1942), a protégé of Cortot and Perlemutter, can’t claim any tutelage under Michelangeli. Nonetheless, there is an affecting honesty and euphonious lyricism about his big-boned playing that resembles Michelangeli’s in more ways than one, especially in the music of Ravel, Debussy and Beethoven. Among Michelangeli’s students, Valois has inherited more than his transcendent technique and magisterial command of sonority; she has inherited his spirit. A welcome but unexpected consequence of this investigation was the discovery of Valois, a world-class talent now teaching at St. Catherine’s College in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. Like her teacher, Valois playing is characterized by its cumulative rhythmic energy. An artist at once soignee and assured, she elaborates even the most subtle musical ideas with unerring intelligence and passion.
Perhaps Michelangeli is not dead, but merely dispersed. He survives, disembodied, in his recordings and in the artistry of the suonatori he so carefully cultivated. "I don’t get the feeling I have really done anything, really achieved anything, as a teacher," he once said. "But then I suppose one always gives something…one maybe plants a few seeds…"
Isolated, distraught and ostracized by his peers, the Master burns the only manuscript of his book and commits himself to a psychiatric hospital and the care of the ominous Dr. Stravinsky. There he meets a famous but mediocre poet, Bezdomny (whose name, not coincidentally, is Russian for "homeless"). Unlike the Master’s, Bezdomny’ incarceration was involuntary. Forcibly imprisoned by the authorities, Bezdomny claims to have met Satan himself . Like a modern day Cassandra, Bezdomny’s only crime was to warn the citizenry that the devil is afoot.
PART IV: SPHINX
In a 1974 interview with the German magazine Fono Forum, Michelangeli spoke candidly about the state of musical interpretation in the late 20th century. Critical of colleagues who anaesthetize music in favor of personal aggrandizement, he observed, "so many pianists often fail to detect all the relationships within a composition. They try to fill a piece with their own ideas in order to fulfill its concept; they live, as it were, in this condition. But suddenly there is no more time left to translate what is in their heads into the fingers, and in the end any sense of proportion has vanished."
The intricate network of relations that define a composition fascinated Michelangeli, in literature as well as music. The tenuous structures that bind one theme or group of themes to another, regardless of temporal distance, challenged his curiosity. Whether a novel or a sonata, the thorny complexities of compositional organization amplified his imagination, which refracted sound as tangentially as a prism does light. At his command was a kind of intellectual psychometry; as he analyzed and absorbed a work’s immanent structure, form and content hemorrhaged imperceptibly, not only into each other, but also into the balletic physical gestures that brought them to life.
His love of Agatha Christy mystery novels and the works of Pirandello notwithstanding, it was his life long fascination with one work of fiction in particular that ignited his musical imagination and did much to inspire, by his own admission, his interpretation of Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet era, anti-fascist fantasy, and Michelangeli’s favorite novel, is at once a metaphor for the pianist’s interpretive prowess and the key to understanding his aesthetic sensibility. A novel within a novel, The Master and Margarita draws on Russian folklore to inhabit a world of magic, poetry and fantastic visions. Themes of the spirit are personified by demons and poets, bureaucrats and witches, psychiatrists and actors. A rich polyphony of interwoven ideas, Bulgakov’s allegory embraces the familiar romantic refrain that genius begets madness. But Bulgakov (1891-1940), an heir of Russia’s Silver Age and the doctrinaire aesthetics of its so-called "mystical anarchists", was no romantic. With mesmerizing power he warns us that mediocrity, which must be avoided at any cost, paves the road to Hell.
The Master of the title is an unrecognized and unpublished writer whose genius is distinguished by his one great work, an historical parable on Pontius Pilate. Dismissed by an atheistic bureaucracy for failing to tow the party line, the Master’s book is publicly condemned as puerile, its author reviled and his hopes annihilated.
Enter Margarita, a wise and sensitive married woman who intuits the Master's artistic gifts. Touched by his genius and overwhelmed by the beauty of his novel, she abandons her husband to become the Master’s concubine and, in time, his salvation. Margarita personifies both the maternal wisdom of the Gnostic Pistas Sophia and the alluring sexuality of a rusalka, the Russian counterpart of the mythical siren Ondine.
The devil Woland and his retinue of goblins have ensorcelled Moscow, hurling it headlong into an endless night of terror and supernatural chaos. In this surrealistic environment anything is possible: cats talk and play billiards, people vanish inexplicably, like a morning mist, into thin air, and gullible matinee audiences, stripped naked by unseen forces, are swept from their seats into the icy Moscow twilight.
In contrast, the setting of the Master’s novel is Judea, where one would expect encounters with the supernatural to be commonplace. Instead it is portrayed as a haven of sobriety, an arid landscape devoid of fantasy and poetry. It is the site, too, of naiveté, persecution and intrigue. Here innocence is assassinated when Pontius Pilate condemns a nomadic holy man and Bedouin prophet, Yeshua Ha-nostri , to death by crucifixion. (Bulgakov himself deftly wagon circled the authorities by re-naming Jesus). Consumed by a crisis of conscience, Pilate’s private hell has just begun; in Judea the devil is human.
Bulgakov’s demons are neither the consequence of a shabby morality, nor an occasion to distinguish good from evil. Nor are they a religious statement. In, Russian Folk Belief, Linda Ivanits’s comprehensive analysis of Russian mythology, the author notes that it is "best to consider the devil [in Russian folklore] one of a number of possible unclean forces, and not a grandiose image around which a highly elaborate demonology coalesces. Such a demonology is absent from Russian folk belief." The forces of darkness (or in the language of psychoanalysis, the unconscious) are interpreted by Bulgakov as a measure of artistic integrity; above all, those forces are the enemies of mediocrity which, having been vanquished, emancipate genius.
Transfiguration is the central theme of The Master and Margarita. By its conclusion its title characters have sold their souls to the devil in return for artistic freedom. Margarita, now transformed into a sorceress, has rescued the Master’s novel from the ashes, and thus resurrected his spirit. In a final act of consecration that even Wagner could not have imagined, the Master, now a spirit adrift in the nether world, becomes his own novel, navigating its landscape and interacting with its characters. Refusing to exorcise his personal demons, the Master has at last fulfilled himself as an artist and escaped a fate worse than death: mediocrity.
Like Michelangeli’s music making, The Master and Margarita operates on multiple levels. A rich tissue of myth and metaphor, it appealed to his Slavic sympathies for its abundant detail and imagery, its stylistic economy and laconic lyricism. Bulgakov and Michelangeli share an interpretive strategy that eschews virtuosity for its own sake and celebrates the complexities of thematic development with unerring precision and uncommon ease.
For the maestro and the Master, art is sacrosanct and the artist its high priest. In the realm of great art there is no room for the timorous. "The hero exists," said Michelangeli, "only because he overcomes his fear."
PART V: DES PAS SUR LE DISQUE: THE LAST GASPARD
"Virtuosity does not exist on credit," writes Vladimir Jankelevitch, the French philosopher, in Liszt and the Rhapsody: An Essay in Virtuosity. He continues:
Virtuosi who inspire confidence solely by their good looks don’t exist. One cannot take a virtuoso at his word, but only recognize his acts, and his manner of doing.
Don’t listen to what he says, listen to what he does; the virtuosic performance is the only authentic proof of
virtuosic credibility. The sincerity of a virtuoso
recognizes itself in an effective performance…Virtuosity presupposes not only an aptitude, but the exercise of an attitude; it is neither a quiescent souvenir, nor a
promise, nor a fait accompli, not platonic virtuality; it is the
very fullness of accomplishment itself. [Where
virtuosity is concerned] nothing counts except success! Virtuosity is judged ruthlessly by its results!
Jankelevitch’s critique of virtuosity, though not aimed at him specifically, pays homage to Michelangeli. Whatever the titillating machinations of an insatiable media, or his contributions as a teacher, it is as a virtuoso that he will be remembered. The attention the world lavished on him was a consequence of an insightful interpretive gift buoyed by a preternaturally flawless technique.
But perfection was anathema to this taciturn pianist, who described it as "a word I haven’t yet understood…perfection is a limitation, a closed circuit. Evolution is something different" What allowed him to so blithely dismiss the collateral power of a comprehensive technique wed to a poet’s vision recalls what Jankelevitch calls surpouvoir:
…An excess of instrumental mastery, such as that of the orator in possession of a surfeit of vocabulary…that
exceeds the current needs of the average life or the everyday. Not knowing what to do with this surplus of riches…he expands rather than squanders them on
exercises and acrobatics; neither strokes nor trills, nor arpeggios, nor cadences in small notes, nor the most luxurious ornaments, nor the most extravagant
profusion can suffice to exhaust such inexhaustible animation.
In some ways Michelangeli resembled a great actor who, without surrendering his authority over the character he portrays, succumbs to the given circumstances of the play and loses himself in his role. His piano playing per se was rendered invisible by his expressive imagination. Struggle and indecision were alien to him, making it impossible for his technique to draw attention to itself. Under these conditions Michelangeli did not simply make music: he liberated it.
Michelangeli resented unauthorized recordings of his concerts. However altruistic the motives of the pirate producers and piano groupies who marketed them, no effort was ever made to compensate him. Nevertheless, few pianists, if any, regret they were made. Early performances of the Schumann Carnaval, the Brahms Paganini Variations, and several Beethoven sonatas provide riveting testimony to his ability to communicate musical ideas on conceptual levels. Indeed, it was the "pirates" who, on more than one occasion, released the crown jewel of Michelangeli’s recorded repertoire: Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.
Devotees concur that Michelangeli "owned" Gaspard. Few performances have ever come close to capturing, as Michelangeli does, the work’s epicene languor, resigned austerity and satanic radiance. Though this assessment does nothing to diminish the magnificent readings of Arrau, Gieseking, de Larrocha and others, it is Michelangeli who, most pianists would agree, set a standard for its performance that will likely never be matched again.
A recording of Gaspard from the 1960 Prague Spring Festival (Music & Arts CD 817, and Multi-Sonic CD 310193) reveals him at his most diabolical. In this reading Michelangeli transforms music into metaphor, codifying the enchantments of Aloysius Bertrand’s poem with disarming elan. With hands like wands, he conjures the moist and moonswept spray that shrouds Ondine’s siren song in a thousand sorrows. Lurking behind Scarbo is the ensorcelled cosmos of the pianist’s favorite novel; in his hands its arid harmonies and darting rhythms shimmer, sauté and grimace as demonically as the Bulgakov’s Behemoth, Satan’s sadistic feline familiar in The Master and Margarita. "Again the Devil…in the affairs of virtuosity one always returns to the Devil," writes Vladimir Jankelevitch. "Such is the shameful connivance of virtuosity and devilry." If Michelangeli’s Ravel in Prague io on the order of a literary experience, Turin’s is a personal, and deeply religious confession.
According to Michelangeli, Scarbo "is quite simply ‘vivo’, not actually fast. Naturally, one finds behind the tempo a million nuances." While the noticeably faster and rhythmically tense Prague performance of Gaspard coils like a spring, a reading two years later in Turin (Memories CD HR 4368/69), if no less picaresque, seems less hellish. On this occasion a more reserved Michelangeli resigns himself to Gaspard’s universe of melancholy and regret. There is something Catholic about its disquieting calm, missing in Prague, that prevails throughout and sanctifies its mysteries. The slower, more languid opening murmur of Ondine, for example, though subfuse and elusive, seems to suspend time as it compels the ear to follow its thread. In Le Gibet, the pedal point scaffolding with which Ravel paints a sea of sighs screams in silence. Michelangeli intuits in it something akin to the excruciating loneliness of a crucifixion, evoking perhaps the suffering of Bulgakov’s Christ-like innocent Ha-Nostri at the hands of Pontius Pilate; as La Gibet draws to its ominous conclusion, the life has been drained out of it.
His early recordings betray no immaturity, and bear witness to the same translucent sound for which he would later become famous. A 1942 reading of the Chopin Berceuse (Pearl Gemm 9086) mesmerizes with a certain weightlessness as it hovers and flutters. The minute and barely perceptible rallentando that saturates the concluding moments of each "variation" is not experienced as a mannerism, but as heightened expectation. More remarkable still is its hushed quiescence in the context of pianissimo.
In Bach’s Italian Concerto, recorded in the same year by Telefunken (now on Pearl 9086), Michelangeli celebrates the dance rhythms which inform the gestuary of baroque figuration. Never ruthless nor clinical, his Bach rejects the attenuation of affect favored by some players. Glenn Gould’s thoughtful, perfectly executed and aesthetically miscalculated approach to the composer, while revered in most piano circles, if not early music cells, is indicted by Michelangeli as naïve at best. But 19th century models of baroque interpretation, which took credit for "modernizing" it, inspired Gould’s ideas. Equalization of note values and dynamics (a practice that was anathema to 17th century ears), although favored by Gould, usurped the inegal, that rosetta stone of baroque rubato. Yet, without over-intellectualizing or relying on some rigid concept of "authentic" performance practice, Michelangeli’s evocation of the baroque spirit was far more compelling, if only for its naturalness and humanity, than that of the patron saint of the Canadian musical tundra.
Because he eventually abandoned playing Bach on the piano, this recording has special value. "I only play Bach on the organ, though never in public," he told the New York Times. "In any case Bach should only be played on the organ or harpsichord…it’s absurd to play Bach on the piano [which] cannot supply the necessary registrations, and they are essential. So let us leave Bach to the harpsichordists."
Controversy followed his interpretation of Schumann’s Carnaval. A commercial recording on an Angel LP (1973) was criticized for its broad tempi which his detractors considered heavy-handed. Perhaps the orchestral sonorities he brought to it, combined with his scrupulous attention to structural details, made some folks uncomfortable. Those expecting the fanciful, even visceral excitement and naiveite of Horowitz’s Schumann or even the bravado and enthusiastic largesse of Rubinstein’s were bound to be disappointed.
Michelangeli’s Austrian side gravitated instinctively towards the baroque elements of Schumann,; here, the little dramas of the smallest compositional cells are deftly exploited, but always in the service of the larger ones. Behind the masks of his Carnaval are pedal points that nag and expand, dotted rhythms that jar and tumble, and sonorities that surface and subside. (A particularly vigorous reading of Carnaval from a 1973 recital in Lugano is available on Music and Arts 817).
His Schumann is not the stuff of dreams or nightmares, but of enigmatic obsessions. For those accustomed to a Russianized Carnaval, where a certain didacticism and melodic plasticity prevail, Michelangeli’s abundantly detailed reading may prove too much to bear, because his playing demands such uncompromised concentration. What many mistake for heaviness is nothing more than a bit of gemutlich Viennese schwung, known to anyone familiar with the irresistible lilt of a Viennese waltz.
Speaking of schwung, had there been an Academy Award for the most outstanding performance of the music of Johannes Brahms, the name Michelangeli would surely have been at the end of these famous words: "and the winner is…" A recital recorded in Lugano in 1973 (Music and Arts 817) offers the Paganini Variations, which he plays with an assured seamlessness, and a no less poignant performance of the humbling King Edward Ballade. Though no explanation is offered for his omission of at least one variation (no. 14 in Book II) and the re-arrangement of others, his Paganinis are warm and generous, harvesting its counterpoint for hidden beauties while illuminating its symmetrical facade of compositional arches and porticos. From his perspective the obligatory return of thematic material is never an occasion for slavish imitation, but an opportunity for discovery.
His Beethoven, though no less expressive, irked some critics. Unwilling to reconcile the beauty of his sound with his intellectual grasp of Beethoven’s dialectics, his detractors often failed to understand the logic and thrust of his conceptions. Some critics chided him for something they perceived to be architectural non-chalance. "Notes flowed just a little too fluidly in Mr. Michelangeli’s Adagio [from the C major sonata Op. 2:3] to convey the underlying aspiration of the music…" wrote the Times of London on June 9, 1965, and then added "perhaps it could be said that [for him] music is not a matter of emotion, but sonority." A few months later Irving Kolodin in the Saturday review complained that "what he lacks is patience with structure, interest in architecture to sustain a long line of thought and carry through a saturating mood. Great piano playing, of course."
Kolodin’s coy criticism is demonstrably specious. Like his Schumann, Michelangeli’s approach to Beethoven is scrupulous for the attention he pays to motivic detail and destiny. Nothing makes a better case for architectural integrity than consistency. The cumulative power of his rhythm relies heavily on motivic definition and micro-dynamics, where even the smallest metrical (and motivic) units give way to discreet affective shading; to ignore this for a theory that a beautiful sound alone can hold a work together is nothing if not unintelligible.
Hard evidence of this aspect of his musical philosophy is available in a 1978 performance, in Paris, of two Beethoven sonatas: numbers 11 and 12, op. 22 in B flat and op. 26 in A flat. From the opening salvo of Op. 22 he leaves no doubt as to the rhythmic identity of the initial motive.
In less expert hands the anacrusis that launches the work might be experienced as a downbeat, thereby disrupting the trajectory that establishes the sonata’s rhythmic contours. Michelangeli avoids such ambiguity with aplomb.
The exploitation of compositional tension was rarely, if ever lost to him. For Michelangeli it was an opportunity for expressive license. While drawing attention to the uncompromising insistence of a pedal point on the tonic B flat throughout the first ten measures of Op. 22, he adroitly highlights the counterpoint; wasting no time, he inflects the principal melody the moment it breaks the stepwise pattern which, in bar 4, it had only just begun to establish. With a flick of his wrist, he illuminates the leap of a fifth from C to G natural on the fourth beat. It is the kind of detail that made Michelangeli, well, Michelangeli.
If his Beethoven occasionally comes down on the Italian side of the Alps, it does so without sacrificing a scintilla of the alpine spirit that infuses these sonatas with their rustic song. Indeed, in the adagio of op. 22, there is something Italianate at work in his subtle embroidery of its melodic arabesques. Even the abrupt sforzandi declamations, which punctuate the andante variations of op. 26, are treated as expressive systoles of dynamic (and rhythmic) evolution, and never as punching bags.
The music of Claude Debussy finds Michelangeli at his most alluring. Though his commercial recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, first issued on LP between 1971 and 1978, are limited to only a few major works (the Preludes, Images and Children’s Corner), they provide a window into the mind of an artist on the cusp on his autumn years. Lush and seductive, these are performances awash in nuance, enhanced by a recording technology that had at last caught up with its subject.
Images in his hands is as much an oasis of memory and reflection as orange cakes and Combray were for Proust. In Reflets dans l’Eau, for example, Debussy’s harmonic chemistry (the composer’s words) swirls and fumes in a performance that takes full account of the work’s migrant sonorities. With each shift of the registrational landscape his sound evolves into a new color.
But for Michelangeli color is never imposed exogenously, but becomes the private illumination of a compositional event from a particular perspective, a function of dynamic contrast and rhythmic variation. In Images, Michelangeli exploits color to reveal structural relationships that run, like a thread, throughout the suite and lend to it a musical (and psychological) subtext. From the nocturnal iridescence of Et la Lune Descend sur le Temple qui fut to the contained passions of Homage a Rameau, he reminds us that Images is an occasion for self-reflection, compelling us to look toward that which is "quiet inside".
Enchantment awaits those who enter the rarefied world of Michelangeli’s vision of Debussy’s Preludes. In Des Pas sur la Neige he fathoms the winter of his own discontent, as well as that of the composer. With strokes now delicate, now bold, and with the consummate skill of a Chinese calligrapher, he engraves its sparse texture with arid remorse, recreating in its brief span a lifetime of resignation and sorrow. The right hand melody, poised in isolation against the drone of the left hand obbligato, angles upward in stepwise motion on the backs of intervening rests. Though it may be literally interpreted as a struggle to get to the top, symbolically it is Prometheus on a small scale, the last breath of spirit enchained. Michelangeli inflects the work with uncanny prescience and thus exposes the very personal – and very private – terror of the composer.
At the center of La Serenade Interrompue is a Moorish song that
Michelangeli aims, like an arrow, at the heart. Though its sullen contours may evoke the fragrance of exotic flora, or the cloistral intimacies of the Alhambra, this is a work that promises much more. Its sadness bewitches with a compelling power that sings a kind of collective melancholy. It is a melody that keeps its promise. Along with Vladimir Sofronitsky’s reading of Scriabin’s Fragilite, Michelangeli’s performance of La Serenade Interrompue is one of the more exquisite moments in the history of recorded music.
Minstrels, the final offering in Book I of the preludes, may have had special significance for the reclusive pianist: he was born 10 years to the day after it was composed on January 5, 1910. Perhaps amused by the coincidence, Michelangeli gives the work its due as a parody of popular music. Like a great actor, he portrays the work as much as he plays it, bringing to it something of the character of a benevolent inebriate who, impervious to usual effects of alcohol, can speak without slurring his words, but exaggerates everything. Michelangeli’s is a gruff and bumptious view of Minstrels that restores it to the realm of irony. (There is at least one other extant version, on Memoria 999001, of Book I of the preludes, recorded in recital at the Vatican in 1977. Interpretively, it is comparable to the DG studio recordings, but compromised by an inferior instrument and acoustics.)
Michelangeli never recorded and only rarely performed the rest of his Debussy repertoire, which was considerable. A revealing comment he made to Valarie Alexandra Valois again suggests an artist in a continual state of flux. Asked why he no longer performed and never recorded L’Isle Joyeuse, his reply was pithy: "Too vulgar!"
Rumors die hard. Restating an old one, the New York Times, in its obituary of the pianist, reported that "his repertory…was not large." In fact, he had an enormous repertoire. When he advised his students to cultivate enough musical material to last a lifetime, he meant it. His own spanned the bulk of the mainstream canon, and included most, if not all 32 Beethoven sonatas; just this side of the complete works of Chopin; plenty of Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms; and a healthy dose of Liszt. He had mixed feelings about Scriabin, for whom he expressed admiration but considered "too sick". Musorgsky he loved; it has been reported (but not confirmed) that he played Pictures at an Exhibition with spectacular success.
"I have played a great deal of Reger," he told Fono Forum, "including the Bach Variations and the Telemann Variations…I even once suggested to a Festival presenter that I play Reger in the middle of a Beethoven program, but he turned me down." Although he was also a champion of Schoenberg, he disparaged the serial music of late 20th century composers, who he referred to as "noisemakers". Asked by Dominic Gill to comment on the music of Boulez and Stockhausen, his response was predictable, if naïve. "Experiments, abortions!", he complained in a blanket indictment that echoes the sentiments of Jankelevitch. Where are musical results?…Research is not result!"
Musical miniatures, like Viennese chocolates, dot Michelangeli’s discography. Sonatas of Scarlatti, Galuppi and Tomeoni, together with tone poems by Grieg, Mompou, Albeniz and Granados give us a glimpse of his "salon" sensibility. From the effete refinements of the Italian baroque (from which Russia drew its early musical culture) to the discreet charms of the Catalonian colorists, his choice of repertoire, though hardly vast on disc, is hardly dull. EMI has released a charming souvenir that includes a particularly engaging performance, from 1939, of Granados’s Andaluza (EMI Classics CD H7644902)
What then can we survey about his recorded legacy? Music making in the Michelangeli household had its roots in an Austrian-Germanic, not Russian, tradition. As we have seen, color, from this perspective, is viewed as a function of musical structure, not the other way round, His playing is a reservoir of contrapuntal hemorrhage where voices bleed one into another, almost imperceptibly, as they dissolve, dovetail and resurface.
In this respect Michelangeli shares a musical ideology with Herbert von Karajan; whatever else may separate them, theirs is camaraderie of intent that identifies the site of musical tension in the space between intervals. But what binds the late conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic and the taciturn Italian Slav is their disposition towards motivic characterizations. For each of them the cumulative organization of rhythm catches fire on the smallest details. They pay tribute, too, to the breadth and length of sound, which, as Karajan once observed "should be fully formed by the time it is played." Short or "pinched" notes – the stacatissimo so roundly favored by Glenn Gould and George Szell – are banished with few exceptions in favor of an approach that honors a seamless legato and separates, rather than strangles, staccato. What’s more, it’s a view that is supported by what is known of the interpretation of staccato in a historical context. In the baroque and classical eras, a dot placed above a note was never intended as an occasion for shortening it, but only for separating it from its neighboring pitch. The entire raison d’être of the staccato was in fact employed in the interest of canceling a previous legato. Thus, a certain textural fullness informs his performances, lending them the weight of moral authority; here, musical climax evolves as a natural consequence of compositional forces. And the culmination of these forces is experienced, when Michelangeli plays, as implosive, rather than explosive, still the preferred means of expression in some circles.
"Naming a subject means suppressing three-quarters of the enjoyment of a poem, which is made up of guessing,’ wrote Stephane Mallarme. "Suggesting it, that’s the dream."
PART VI: THE STEEL SHROUD
Exploring the life of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli is like walking through the pages of an old book, its saffron-hued leaves worn with use and wisdom, its corners obscure and dusty. But a closer look reveals potent riches tucked away in the counterpoint of its chapters, paragraphs, and cadences. Turn a page here or there and some exotic new character peers out, ready to whisper explosive new intimacies which remain a private matter between author and reader.
When news broke that one of the century’s greatest musical hearts beat no more, Michelangeli’s admirers fully expected to see page long obituaries in America’s major newspapers, elaborate tributes in the editorial columns of national magazines and, at the very least, a memorial service at Carnegie Hall. But there was nothing. In the American press, save a few lonely, abbreviated obituaries that ornamented the back pages of the New York Times and other august journals, his passing was largely ignored. Evidently the American media felt no shame for the idolatry it fawned on the drug-induced stupor of suicidal rock stars and Hollywood icons to the exclusion of one of the most original and influential performers in the history of 20th century music. Only CNN saw fit to broadcast a video rich obituary. Scouring the archives of French television and Italy’s RAI, Ted Turner’s people zeroed in on rare, black and white 60s era footage of Michelangeli playing Scarlatti sonatas.
But CNN aside, why the cold shoulder?. Had the electronic umbilical cord that unites the world really been severed where the social and spiritual values of "serious" music, and the interest of its apologists, were concerned? And has what little interest that remains in the icons of 20th century art-music been steam-rollered by pop-culture? Perhaps philosopher turned pop-culture critic Camille Paglia is right when she proclaims the victory of pop over the intellectually driven complexities of classical art forms. Dwelling on that issue, however, promises to go nowhere fast. After all, the world that Michelangeli left was not the one that he came into.
While Herbert von Karajan and Vladimir Horowitz made front page news when the reaper came calling in their backyards, Michelangeli, at least where the American press was concerned, was already dead. Smothered in apocryphal myths that dogged him throughout his life, Michelangeli had lost some of his media chic. By the late 1970s music writers with nothing better to do regurgitated the same, tired old stories to legions of cloying culture-vultures who, having confused art with soap opera, consumed every smidgen of gossip. The tales of this Italian "pianist’s pianist" and his fast Ferraris, victorious auto races and wartime adventures, though they energized the ever present threat of his concert cancellations, began to lose their glamour.
Michelangeli was never one to give way to the expectations of the critics or the public. That may explain in part why he had no career to speak of in the United States. The two dozen or so appearances he made in the USA in his 60 year career, together with a handful of commercially produced recordings did little to win over critics and the musical establishment that could have made him a star, at least from their perspective.
The carefully constructed public image-repertoire, so impeccably cultivated by Horowitz and Cliburn, for example, never appealed to Michelangeli, even as a means to an end. Legend always followed him, not the other way around. The impenetrable envelope of privacy in which he wrapped himself was designed to shield an abnormally heightened artistic sensibility from the ravages and intrusions of an insatiable public. Perhaps Michelangeli can be interpreted as a victim of that syndrome of absence and anxiety that Sartre dubbed existential nausea. His infrequent public appearances, together with his reluctance to engage the public itself without any other underlying motivation than making music for it, provided a telling metaphor for a life at once totally fulfilled and curiously unsatisfied. Michelangeli was hardly a pianist who performed on a concert series with a view towards being invited back.
With the exception of Garbo, who hid behind floppy hats and oversized sunglasses, stars who cancel engagements don’t make headlines in America, and neither does art for art’s sake. Michelangeli’s enigmatic musical spirit was a mystery to those unwilling or unable to see beyond his personal idiosyncrasies. It is no small irony that several generations of pianists, denied an opportunity to hear him in person, were compelled to rely exclusively on pirate recordings to contemplate his interpretive ideas.
What once galled even his admirers – his apparent indifference to the very public that, having supported him, felt entitled to more – was eventually forgiven if not forgotten, evaporated by the magnitude of his contributions to music itself. The role of the American press in his life was, in the final analysis, inconsequential. No one knew this better than Michelangeli himself, who would have regarded even this essay to be a waste of time.
Yet behind the exaggerations and half-truths that he allowed to proliferate about his personal life and professional obligations was a sound mind and a complex individual. A cynic would say that he deliberately fabricated those fictions in order to command increasingly astronomic fees. As we have seen, nothing could be further from the truth, and to perpetuate the legends will bring no one any closer to fathoming his artistic spirit.
The steely shroud of silence that he inspired among his friends and associates survives him. Concerned with violating the confidence with which he entrusted them, many of those who knew him well – his inner circle – declined to be interviewed for this article. Those who consented did so with caution. Even in death, his privacy is sacrosanct, and he inspired a fierce loyalty. Any inquiry into his affairs, personal, professional or intellectual, is viewed as invasive. No distinction was made between Michelangeli as public artist and private individual; to betray one, from their perspective, is to betray the other.
Of course, who can blame them? After decades of hearsay and innuendo, much of it deliberately misleading and inaccurate, the press was suspect. Fearful that private intimacies might degenerate into invective, the most sensible thing is to keep one’s mouth shut. "I hardly ever saw a nobler person than Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli," protested Georg Hortnagel, the pianist’s agent in Munich. "Leave him in peace! He never liked great fuss!"
As a longtime friend and student, Renato Premezzi articulates the solidarity of Michelangeli’s inner circle with considerable eloquence. "The maestro wished to have no information released about his death…he remained an intensely shy and private person. Hence the reluctance of some to ‘discuss’ or ‘evaluate’ his unique genius…on certain levels, this must continue to be respected."
Where the objective of an exegesis is to survey his role in 20th century music, and to set forth a retrospective of his life and work, Michelangeli can probably rest in peace. Perhaps the private Michelangeli never belonged to his devotees. But the public one most certainly did. As much as he disdained the price of fame, the career of a concert pianist was a choice that he, and he alone made. He was a private person in a public profession. Whatever future generations can harvest from his exquisite musical sensibility or absorb from his limitless imagination will determine the final measure of his legacy.
1 Carl Lachmund, Living With Liszt: The Diaries of Carl Lachmund. Ed. Alan Walker; ed. Pendragon Press, Franz Liszt Society Series No 4, 1995. P 163
2 Aloysius Bertrand. Ondine. Cited in Gaspard de la Nuit [musical score] by Maurice Ravel. Durand et fils, Paris
3 Charles Rosen. The Romantic Generation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1995
5 Linda J. Ivanits. Russian Folk Belief. M.E. Sharpe, Inc. Armonk, New York; London. 1989.p 95
6 Vladimir Jankelevitch. Liszt et la Rhapsodie: Essai sur la Virtuosite No. V in the series De la Musique au Silence, Librairie Plon, Paris. 1979 , (Translated for this article by John Bell Young)
7 Jankelevitch Ibid p 17
8 Jankelevitch. Ibid.
9 Wolfgang Domling. Cited in liner notes to Debussy Preludes: Vol. 2.Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, pianist. Deutsche Grammophon CDE no. 427391. No source given
Copyright 1999. John Bell Young. All rights reserved. This article cannot be duplicated, cited, reprinted, or distributed in any medium, print or electronic, either in whole or in part, without the express written permission of its author.
About the author of this article
JOHN BELL YOUNG, whose recordings of the music of Alexander Scriabin, Friedrich Nietzsche, and others on the Newport Classics, Sony Classical, and Americus labels have earned international critical acclaim, is a leading authority on the music of Scriabin. In 2002 Americus Records released his recording of Richard Strauss's rarely performed Enoch Arden, a melodrama for narrator and piano, in which he collaborates with the celebrated British actor, Michael York, with whom he also toured internationally in performances of that work in the 2003 and 2004.
Mr Young has performed throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia, South America,and often in Russia, including appearances at the Glinka Cappella in St Petersburg, the Scriabin Museum in Moscow, and at the Riga Philharmonic in Latvia. Volkswagen sponsored his 2001 tour of the Peoples Republic of China. Winner of the 1985 Chopin Foundation Council Prize, he has given master classes and lectures at Brown University, the Juilliard School, the University of South Florida, the Leningrad Conservatory, the Moscow Conservatory, and the Boston Conservatory of Music. In the US he has performed at such prestigious venues as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach; at both the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC; the Concert Hall of the Forbidden City in Beijing; the Musee Carnavalet in Paris; and at the Royal Palace in Stockholm. A recital he devoted to music of Liszt, Chopin, Godowsky, Gershwin, and Schumann, filmed for Dutch television and entitled John Bell Young: Sweet Summer Concert, Amsterdam,has been broadcast in Holland (TROS), England (ITV), Israel and throughout Eastern Europe.
John Bell Young is also known as something of a musical archaeologist; he has either recorded or performed the rarely heard and largely unknown musical compositions of such prominent literary figures as Nietzsche, Tolstoi, Ezra Pound, Garcia-Lorca, and Boris Pasternak. On his Americus CD, Prisms (2000) he also recorded a work by the celebrated boradcaster and newsman, Hugh Downs.
In 1990 the [Rockefeller] Trust for Mutual Understanding awarded Mr Young a grant to lead the American delegation to the International Scriabin Conference and Festival in Moscow, where he performed an all-Scriabin recital at the Scriabin Museum on the occassion of the composer's 120th anniversary, and presented his monograph Scriabin Defended Against His Devotees: A Critical Evaluation of the Composer and his Music in the Context of Russian History, Religion and Culture Mr. Young is one of only a few pianists endorsed by both Elena Scriabina Sofronitsky and Marina Scriabin, the composer's daughters.
Profiles and feature articles about Mr. Young have appeared in Time, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Chronicle, the US News and World Report, Lingua Franca, Hamburger Abendblatt, Bunte (Berlin), Pravda (Moscow), Le Monde de la Musique (Paris), Chaspik (St Petersburg, Russia), Musica Rivista Italiana (Rome) the Christian Science Monitor, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, the American Record Guide, Clavier, the St. Petersburg Times (Florida), Dagens Nyheter, (Stockholm), NPR's Performance Today, WNYC's New Sounds with John Schaefer, ABC-TVs 20/20, and David Dubal's nationally syndicated radio broadcast (WQXR in New York) Reflections from the Keyboard.
A widely published writer and music critic, he is a correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times, American Record Guide, Opera News, Clavier Companion, Music and Vision, and Classical DisCDigest. He is also an annotator for Sony Classical, Angelok Records, and other record labels. He is the author of five critically acclaimed books (on Brahms, Puccini, Beethoven, Liszt, and Schubert), which were published by Amadeus Press in 2008 and 2009.
Mr. Young served alongside Sviatoslav Richter on the advisory board of the 1995 Scriabin International Competition in Moscow, where a special prize for the best performance of an early Scriabin Sonata was established in his name. He is a frequent adjudicator at international piano competitions, including the European International Piano Competition (Sweden), the Greta Erikson Nordic at Kil (Sweden), the RAMA (Boston), the Young Prince (Russia), the Boston Outstanding Amateur (Boston); the International Russian Music Piano Competition (San Jose); and the Premio Jaen (Spain).
In 2009, in recognition of his writing, John Bell Young was honored by a number of prestigious foundations, among them the Kittredge Fund (administered out of Harvard University), the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Carnegie Fund, and Stephen King's Haven Foundation, each of which awarded him a generous grant for his work.
Making his home in the Boston area, John Bell Young is the devoted companion of an exceptionally handsome black Labrador Retriever, Ben (www.johnbellyoung.com/sound/ben-14-wks.jpg and www.johnbellyoung.com/sound/ben-at-9-months.jpg), and an Irish Setter, Justice. ( www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfGp__NEvYI ) A devotee of canine culture, Mr Young's article on the effects of classical music on canine behavior (and canine behavior on musicians who own dogs) features interviews with a number of prominent pianists and animal behaviorists, including Animal Planet's Victoria Stilwell, Dr. Ian Dunbar, Dr Susan Wagner, pianists Eric Le Van, Katherine and Leon Fleisher, Helene Grimaud, and composer Lowell Liebermann. It will be published by Clavier Companion in 2010. He is also at work co-authoring a new book, "Why Dogs Dance:The Neurobiology of Music and Canine Freestyle", with Dr Sue Ann Lesser, DVM.