Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli Biography


Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli

Born: January 5, 1920 - Brescia, Italy
Died: June 12, 1995 - Lugano, Switzerland

The celebrated Italian pianist and pedagogue, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, began music lessons at the age of 3, initially with the violin, but quickly switched to the piano. At the age of four he began studying at the Istituto Musicale Venturi under the direction of Paolo Chimeri. At 10 he entered the Milan Conservatory, where he studied piano and composition under Giovanni Anfossi as well as violin with Renzo Francesconi. He obtained his soloist's diploma at the age of 13 (or 14). At the insistence of his father he studied medicine for a brief period of time. In 1938, at age 18, he began his international career by entering the Ysaÿe International Festival in Brussels, where he placed seventh. (A brief account of this competition, at which Gilels took first prize, is given by Arthur Rubinstein, who was one of the judges. According to Rubinstein, Michelangeli gave "an unsatisfactory performance, but already showed his impeccable technique.") A year later, in 1939, he earned first prize in the prestigious Geneva International Competition, whose jury was headed by Ignaz Paderewski. Michelangeli's importance as a towering figure among 20th-century pianists was stamped by pianist Alfred Cortot, a presiding judge, who said: "Here is a new Liszt".

From 1941 to 1943 Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli served in the Italian Air Forces, and then joined the anti-Fascist partisan movement. Although taken as a prisoner by the German occupation forces, he soon managed to escape and awaited the complete liberation of Italy to resume his career. With World War II over in 1945, he played in his homeland. In 1946 he made his first tour of Europe. He played in England in 1946, and was invited to the USA for the first time in 1948. In 1949, he was requested to take part in the festivities commemorating the 100th anniversary of Chopin's death in Warsaw. In subsequent years, he appeared in selected major music centres of the world while acquiring a legendary reputation as a virtuoso. Unfortunately, he also developed a reputation for cancelling engagements at the last minute. When he did perform, however, his concerts were invariably sold out and accorded ovations by public and critics alike. In 1960 he performed Beethoven's Emperor Concerto in Vatican City for the Pope. After a health-related pause in his career, he returned to the concert podium in 1964, when he travelled to Russia. n 1965 he became one of the first Western artists to concertize extensively in Asia. He then concretised in the USA, Israel and, once again, in Germany. He founded the International Piano Festival in Brescia and Bergamo in 1964, and remained its artistic director for about three years.

In addition, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli also dedicated himself with great enthusiasm to his teaching activities. Already in 1939 he was made a professor at the Bologna Conservatory. His reputation quickly spread throughout the musical world led to his appointment later, to the Conservatories of Venice and Bolzano as well. From 1964 to 1969 he was director of his own piano academy in Brescia. In later years, he devoted most of his time to teaching. In addition, he gave master-classes in Arezzo, Sienna, Turin and Lugano. Among his pupils were Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini. A generous man, he funded each and every one of his students out of his own income, maintaining that music is an inalienable right for those who have the gift.

In 1968 Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli went into voluntary "exile" from Italy, angered at the government for impounding his pianos after a company in which he was a partner went bankrupt. Although Italy remained his official residence, he resided in Switzerland for the rest of his life. After setting in a town close to Lugano, he became increasingly absorbed with his search for the greatest possible depth of interpretation, the result of which can be seen in several grandiose concert performances - as concerts with orchestra and in solo recitals - which the maestro gave throughout Europe (in particular, the Vatican concerts of 1977 and 1987, as well as the Bregenz and London concert series). After overcoming an illness which broke out during a concert in Bordeaux in 1988, he returned to his international concert career with renewed energy in 1989. Its dazzling climaxes were reached in two Mozart CD's and in the exceptional Bremen concerts of 1989 and 1990, the Munich concerts conducted by Sergiu Celibidache, the extensive Japan tour of 1992 and, finally, in the Hamburg concerto of May 7, 1993, which was Michelangeli's last public appearance. After an extended illness he died in Lugano.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli has been regarded as among the most commanding and individual piano virtuosos of the 20th century, among names such as Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter. He is often considered the most important Italian pianist after Ferruccio Busoni. He was known for his note-perfect performances. The music critic Harold Schonberg wrote of him: "His fingers can no more hit a wrong note or smudge a passage than a bullet can be veered off course once it has been fired...The puzzling part about Michelangeli is that in many pieces of the romantic repertoire he seems unsure of himself emotionally, and his otherwise direct playing is then laden with expressive devices that disturb the musical flow." The teacher and commentator David Dubal adds that he was best in the earlier works of Beethoven and seemed insecure in Chopin, but that he was "demonic" in such works as the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and the Brahms Paganini Variations.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's repertoire was strikingly small for a concert pianist of such stature. While his technical mastery made him one of the great keyboard exponents of the Romantic repertoire, his sympathies ranged widely, from early music to the 20th century. Owing to his obsessive perfectionism relatively few recordings were officially released during Michelangeli's lifetime, but these are augmented by numerous bootleg recordings of live performances. Discography highlights include the (authorised) live performances in London of Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, Chopin's Sonata No. 2 and Robert Schumann's Carnival, Op. 9 and Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26. The Gaspard as well as his playing of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G set standards for those works and his reading of Sergei Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 4 is comparable to that of S. Rachmaninov himself. His Debussy series for DG is something of a benchmark, if it is sometimes accused of being a little unatmospheric ("swimming in cool water," in Dubal's words). Several DVD's of live performances, and of a master-class, are also available.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was something of a hypochondriac. Apart from his musical activities, he claimed to have been a qualified doctor, pilot, racing car driver. He also is said to have traced his ancestry back to St. Francis of Assisi. Michelangeli never wholly embraced life as a concert artist. He felt that to pour such adulation on a performer was a disgrace, and that it distracted the performer from the very essence of his duty. A deeply private man, he had a tendency to distort the truth during interviews, making it difficult for musicologists and historians to build an accurate portrait of his life; he will likely remain a fascinating, little-understood man.

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