March 19, 2011

Michelangeli's Chopin

Artur Schnabel once declared (with his customary pompousness) that he plays only music which is better than it can be played (i.e., Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert).  Judging by Schnabel's recorded legacy (including a few live broadcasts from the 1940s), he should have played just about everything written for the piano, since at least this much music is better than it could have been played by Schnabel - when "better" involves better than 50/50 ratio of correct notes to those that are wrong or missing.  (Upon hearing that Schnabel was rejected for military service back at the time of WWI, the great piano virtuoso and wit Moritz Rosenthal quipped: No wonder!  The man has no fingers!)*
If I ever needed a proof that Schnabel's profound musical intellect was sabotaged by his snobbish worship of music from the Austro-German Classical period, Chopin's G-minor Ballade would be high on my list.  Of all the countless performances of this composition that I've heard over the years, only a few came close to realizing the ideal balance of its structural organization, emotional content, and technical display; and only one convinced me that it actually captured this ideal.  

Michelangeli is one of those "keyboard giants" of the 20th century (Horowitz is another) who never succeeded in making this piece sound as good as it actually is.  While the technical demands are met with astounding and seemingly effortless perfection, the music emerges as a succession of quasi-independent episodes, sculpted with piercingly beautiful tone and punctuated by explosions of technical wizardry.  I treasure this performance precisely because it shows so strikingly how elusive great music can be even for the most prodigiously gifted musicians.

*    Yeah, yeah, I know all those worshipful references to Schnabel's profound musicianship, which supposedly outweighed the devastating shortcomings in his pianistic craft. I think this attitude is laughable.  After all, no amount of intellect and scholarship could ever save a performance by an actor with a severe speech defect.  And I'm supposed to believe that performances by a pianist who frequently "stutters" and swallows one out of three musical syllables can be seriously described as great performances?   

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