Arturo Benedetti MichelangeliThe Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920–1995) is considered one of the greatest virtuosos of the 20th century. His style is classical in the sense of classicism and in a way that is more than emblematic. Why?

Italy never totally absorbed romanticism with its emphasis on excessive emotions, irrationality, free form etc. A sense of grace, elegant beauty and formal perfection together with a preference for simplicity over complexity have often been among the components of the Italian attitude in Arts.

Michelangeli’s style though (together with Maurizio Pollini’s) personifies all this even too much. He not only provides further evidence of this anti-romanticism present in the Italian culture – due to the Italian classical heritage (not many doubts about it.) Michelangeli’s peculiar (and sacred) approach to music crosses in our view a line by breaking the balance between form and emotion, between the rational and the lyrical side of a work – a balance which is typical of the best classicism. He reaches such a controlled perfection that his performances are prodigious, true, and proverbial, ok, but they are often very chilly as well (not many doubts either.)

[Maurizio Pollini has somewhat bypassed great Romantic piano music too – going though towards contemporary music – and his style is not very far from Michelangeli’s, of whom he was also a pupil]

In other words, Italian musical classicism is brought by Michelangeli to a limit where passion and musical spontaneity seem to disappear. He never lets himself go and every single note is under his control.

In fact “Michelangeli was known for his note-perfect performances” (Wikipedia). “His fingers can no more hit a wrong note – writes Harold Schonberg, a famous New York Times music critic- or smudge a passage than a bullet can be veered off course once it has been fired.”

Michelangeli’s performances of Romantic authors are therefore generally baffling. His interpretation of Frédéric Chopin‘s Ballade in G minor, one of the great works of Romantic music, can very well bring out this point, we believe:

As Squishym (a Youtube user) well observes “it sounds detached for the most part and the timing has a lot of strange hesitations for no apparent reason (perhaps an attempt to simulate emotion?)” Yes, very well said indeed.

An opinion confirmed by the above said Harold Schonberg, who wrote: “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.”

In Domenico Scarlatti‘s sparkling and rationally crystal clear baroque Michelangeli seems instead much more at ease. This beautifully and very fast played sonata shows all his supreme coolness.

Michelangeli was sometimes considered at his best with the impressionistic French repertoire (Debussy and Ravel). Here follows Chopin’s Berceuse, where the flaws shown in the Ballade in G minor are in our view not present because of the pre-impressionistic genre of this marvelous piece.

Benedetti Michelangeli’s playing here radiates its exquisite magic.

Finally Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcription of Bach’s Chaconne in d-moll BWV 1004 for violin solo. The art of Bach, Busoni and Michelangeli combine to bring to life an awesome, unparalled musical experience. As the teacher and commentator David Dubal observed, Michelangeli “was best in the earlier works of Beethoven and seemed insecure in Chopin, but he was demonic in such works as the BachBusoni Chaconne and the Brahms Paganini Variations.”


Let us listen to this demonic Michelangeli (the performance here being unfortunately – and horribly – cut into two separate videos):

[May 2014 update : a different, possibly better, performance of Bach-Busoni’s Chaconne by A.B. Michelangeli – all in one piece]


Other related posts:

Music, Politics and History
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

On my piano teacher, Pauline O’Connor, pupil of Michelangeli:

A Refined but Passionate Celtic Goddess of Piano Music is No More? NO! She’s Alive and Kicking!

18 thoughts on “Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

  1. I’ll add a few notes for reflection.

    The idea that the Italian culture is based on passion is simplistic.

    As far as Bach and Michelangeli, we had written in From the two sides of the Roman Limes (linked above):

    “Bach is a son of un-romanized Germany. Rome and the classical world are not all, of course. But I am asking myself: is this diverse historical background somewhat responsible for the fact that Bach’s music lacks sometimes … measure and grace? Is it by chance that many Italians prefer his music played by classicism-oriented performers like American Murray Perahia or, even better, Italian Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli? I for example adore Bach’s Italian Concert in F major (BWV 971) played by Michelangeli (and other Bach’s works played by him). His magic fingers add grace and equilibrium to this austere northern German music, making it sound a little bit like Mozart’s.”

    Finally (and as regards Bach’s lack of measure – or the Italian way of perceiving it) as far as Bach’s Goldberg Variations it is interesting how the Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni had suggested to cut eight variations for making the work more fit (and less fatiguing, or schwer) to a concert audience (although Busoni’s reworking is much more complex an operation than it can be discussed here).


    1. UPDATE
      Neapolitan *Maria Tipo*’s Bach is another example of how Bach can be ‘corrected’ (eg made more elegant, singing etc.) by Italian performers. Martha Argerich btw thought that Maria Tipo’s playing was sensational.


  2. Thank you, Man of Roma, I couldn’t agree more with you, and I think I’ll link to this post later.
    All the best.


    P.S. What about my latest post about the exhibition “Julius Caesar – Man, Feats and Myth” (Giulio Cesare. L’uomo, le imprese, il mito), which is being held in Rome at the Chiostro del Bramante? Have you already been there?


  3. Thanks Rob. I’m looking forward to reading what you’ll write about Michelangeli.

    The exhibition on Julius Caesar? I’ll surely go there soon (I’ve been in bed with fever and bronchitis) and I think I’ll link to your post as well, although I’ll wait till I go there myself.


  4. I’ll paste here my comment on Rob’s post on Michelangeli:

    “Well, I wrote this post also from a sort of direct knowledge I have of Michelangeli’s pianism (my ideal for some time.)

    My piano teacher was actually one of his best pupils. Australian, of Irish descent, she lived in Arezzo, Tuscany – since Michelangeli had lived in Arezzo for quite a long time.

    When coming to Italy from Perth for the first time – she told me – she was already capable of playing ALL four Rachmaninof’s piano concertos by heart and almost without effort! (I’m sure you know this music is among the most difficult stuff ever written for piano).

    So she went to Michelangeli’s who, after listening to her with attention declared that if she really wanted to become his pupil she had to start all over again from Bach’s two-voice Inventions! She was sort of annihilated, if I well recall. THAT was Michelangeli’s way in any case.

    Therefore he later moulded her into what she was when I first met her. I can assure you, to the great Michelangeli’s school of pianism, she could add all her Irish heart and unpredictability. She was in my view surely greater than Maurizio Pollini, but she had to end up her career for family reasons and went back to Perth.

    My best regards

    Man of Roma

    From that time I never heard of her any more. Wonder what happened to her.”


    1. I know, dear H.P., whoever you are. An bring her my *deepest love* (and ask her if she ever read that Rachmaninoff’s biography she grabbed from me before departure: she might remember me this way I hope) 😦

      She had two male kids before departure I recall. Why don’t you ask her to contact me here via them?


      1. Pauline is still alive and kicking in Australia, still married after over 45 years, and she had 5 children in total…she taught and gave occasional concerts too in Australia…is what I know as a friend/ acquaintance. I may contact her/them at some stage. They aren’t nearby to me right now.


        1. [sorry I replied so late, H]

          5 children! I remember she had two male toddlers in Arezzo. I am happy she didn’t stop giving concerts in Australia (teaching I was sure she would have continued). I think in some way she was even better than Benedetti Michelangeli (although she would never agree.)

          When she was about to leave she told me she would possibly be a singer, since, with a family (plus a piano being heavy to carry around lol), a ‘voice’ is an instrument one can always carry with about (and no less beautiful than a piano, of course.)

          I’d love to contact her, H. Be so kind to play the trait-d’union person even if you live far from her as of now. All I need, after all, is her phone number and / or her e-mail.

          I’ll contact you by e-mail if you don’t mind.

          Ciao, H!



          1. I had so much fun reading all these posts. As a matter of fact we will be seeing her on Saturday 2nd of August when going for piano class with my 12 yo Oliver. She is a sensational piano teacher and her classes are so much fun for kids. She is such a kind person. She is relief teacher for our son when our regular teacher and her friend Jana Kovar goes to Europe. You can send me your contact, I will pass on to her. Kind regards. Wladek Klimczak


          2. My email is I am isolated in the Alps. Connection is bad because of crazy weather. I”ll do what I can. I was 18, blonde and with a thick pitch black beard. Which made me weird looking I guess. She might remember me. Ciao


          3. OK I will mention Giovanni, black beard and Rachmaninov’s book. Pauline told us many anecdotes from her time in Italy. Cheers. Wladek


  5. @Ashish
    Ah ah, a start? A bit on the hard side, I’m afraid. Glad if it can help lol 🙂

    Hey, why don’t you try to listen many times to the last piece of music I propose here, even if you don’t like it at first? I mean of course the last two movies: they’re part of the same work. Could be a good initiation.

    (Bach is stern but often mystical. it could appeal to an Indian mind. No Latin stuff, as I try to explain. For the Latin and classical heritage, Italian and French music are good of course, plus Austrian music, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert. There’s of course some Germany in there but these folks were deeply influenced by Italian music. Also young Beethoven is close to Mozart and Haydn. BUT, Beethoven, who lived in Vienna, was an outsider from Northern Germany lol. He thus finished by breaking the whole edifice of classical equilibrium, enhanced German influence and boosted Romanticism, like an avalanche. History applied to arts is a drug and pure magic, although I’m aware I’m making history of music sound a bit like a comic book)

    Another approach could be to listen randomly to some Internet Western classical music radio. Random exploration. It can be allright too allowing you to discover many things you like. But we’ll get back to our start, I promise.


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