Ravel: Piano Concerto in G (CD review)

Also, Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 4. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, piano; Ettore Gracis, Philharmonia Orchestra. Warner Classics 0724356723825.

Face it: Italian concert pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995) must have had a hard time finding material that sounded as good as his name. Seriously, for one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century, he left behind relatively few recordings. This was not, however, for lack of trying. It's just that the man was a perfectionist and didn't approve the release of many of the recordings he made. No matter: The ones he did leave us are enough to ensure that Michelangeli's name will live on for a very long time.

No doubt, one of the best things Michelangeli ever did was this recording of Ravel's and Rachmaninov's Piano Concertos. Especially the Ravel. In my mind and having heard a whole lot of them, Michelangeli's Ravel interpretation reigns supreme.

It was 1931 when French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) wrote the Piano Concerto in G major, a clear result of George Gershwin's music having persuaded him to inject some American jazz into his music. This connection is evident early on in the concerto, but, as we might have expected, Ravel added his own suggestions of dreamy, Romantic impressionism to the mix. It's certainly one of Ravel's most-imaginative works, full of jazzy bustle one moment and the tenderest grace the next, and unless the pianist is careful, the piece can appear as merely a series of clamorous rants and dreamy allusions. In Michelangeli's hands, the music is magical.

Yes, as I say, under Michelangeli, everything seems just right. He rushes nothing, a common failing in too many other performances of this work, instead gracing each note with a perfect timing. The result is almost mystical, the jazz elements present, to be sure, yet never with any overemphasis. What can seem merely hustle and bustle in some interpretations here sound exactly right, the transitions so effortless that the whole piece appears as one. Michelangeli never grandstands, every note unforced and effortlessly effective. And yet those long solo passages seem to grow organically from the ground up, the performer creating excitement in a fluid, flowing manner.

With Michelangeli, the Adagio is practically hypnotic and casts a haunting spell over the entire piece. It's meltingly beautiful. Then we get a finale that sounds every bit as insightful and daring as the movements that went before it, filled with extreme but still graceful intensity and virtuosic playing.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
Russian composer, pianist, and conductor Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) wrote his Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor in 1926, but it would be a couple of more years before he felt it ready for publication. While today it rather takes a backseat to the more popular Second and Third Concertos, it still exhibits its own merits. In fact, if the overt Romanticism of those previous concertos bother you, the Fourth may be just down your alley. Like the Ravel work, the Rachmaninov piece displays some influences of Gershwin-like jazz, just not quite as much.

Although the Rachmaninov concerto sounds more dramatically inclined that the Ravel, Michelangeli plays up its more-lyrical side with equal agility, letting the eagerness of the moment take care of itself. It's a kind of self-effacing performance from the pianist, one in which he fades into the music itself instead of standing out as its supreme commander. Then, as the icing on this most-delectable cake, the orchestra blends into the proceedings almost subliminally. Pianist and orchestra are so at one you can hardly tell these works are concertos at all. Meaning Maestro Gracis is with Michelangeli all the way, from the most-hushed interludes to the biggest crescendos.

This is, indeed, an album for the ages.

Producer Peter Andry and engineer Christopher Parker recorded the two concertos at Studio No. 1, Abbey Road, London in March 1957. The Warner Music Group reissued it in 2015, but if you were expecting a new remaster, it didn't happen. This is the same mastering EMI made in 2000 for their "Great Recordings of the Century" series. If you already own that one, you have no need for this one. On the other hand, if you don't already have this recording, the sound holds up extremely well, and you'll not find better performances.

The sound, in fact, is very transparent, with a wonderful sense of dimensionality and air. What's more, there is a wide dynamic range involved, with reasonably good impact on the stronger transients. The instruments blend well, yet individual instruments stand out as well, without appearing too multi-miked. The piano itself feels well placed, slightly ahead of the orchestra but not too far. It also sounds clear and natural, with just a touch of realistic room ambience to heighten the illusion of being there. Maybe because the orchestration in the Rachmaninov is a bit more lavish, the sound there is a tad warmer.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa