Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli / Daniel Barenboim

Schumann: Piano Concerto; Debussy: Images

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For many classical music cognoscenti, Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, pianist of the second half of the 20th century. With his Olympian technique, crystalline tone, and trenchant interpretations, he indisputably turned in some of the finest recordings ever made. This disc, though, which includes live performances of Schumann's Piano Concerto and four of Debussy's Images for piano, may be a disappointment to his fans. The recorded sound of the Schumann concerto is exceedingly poor, especially considering it comes from Paris in 1984; the orchestra frequently swamps the piano, and the hazy acoustics nearly bury both. Daniel Barenboim's wayward tempos and the overly blended tone of the Orchestre de Paris are wrong for the music and the soloist, and their accompaniments seem perfunctory at best. Worst of all, though, is Michelangeli's performance of the concerto. Though the lucidity of the playing makes the performance recognizably his, too much of his playing feels tentative and even hesitant. The opening movement's cadenza has neither sufficient passion nor polish, for example, and the closing movement lacks the drive and energy it needs to succeed. The recordings and the performances of Debussy's Images are vastly better and one can hear the old Michelangeli magic at work in their luminous colors and radiant textures, but they are no improvement over the same pianist's 1971 studio recordings of the same works. In sum, this is a disappointing release that does little to reinforce the pianist's reputation.

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