Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli

Arturo Benedetto Michelangeli


The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains

is the Zen you bring up there.

~ Robert Pirsig


Michelangeli is the greatest painter~sculptor the piano has ever known.  He embodies the tonal mastery of the French Impressionists, the attention to detail of a Swiss Watchmaker, and the inborn sense of integrity and self-respect of an Italian Artist.  Oddly, he seems to lack the Italian’s love of Opera and Singing, but you hardly miss it for the splendors he offers. 

For some unexplainable reason, Michelangeli remained peripheral to my pianistic world for my first quarter-century.  But when I moved to Italy, where he’s a demigod among musicians, I was forced to come to terms with him and came to realize his greatness.

I can’t believe he just split a note like that.  That’s so not like him! 

A ‘cellist friend of mine as a teenager had just unwrapped a new CD – a live recording of Michelangeli playing the Emperor.  He was still alive at the time, hiding away in Switzerland from the Italian authorities for tax evasion.  He was said to love Football {Soccer…} as much as Music.


I loved that!  From the age of seven I had declared to my parents my intentions to either play the Piano like Horowitz or Soccer like Pele.  Music was my calling but I never lost my love of Soccer.

We listened to the entire first movement.  Indeed, that split note in the introduction would be the last.  I had never heard such controlled mastery.  It was frightening and off-setting.  If it hadn’t been live, I would have assumed it had been edited down in the tradition of Glenn Gould.  { Nowadays, live of course rarely means live anymore… }.  I couldn’t help but feel that there was something unnatural about it.  It was the antithesis of my old-Russian-School style.  Would I ever learn to play with such perfection, such coolness?  I was enthralled but turned off at the same time.

A year later, my Professor entered our weekly performance class a few minutes late in a rare, disarmed state, a copy of the New York Times in her hands.  All were silent, waiting for her speak.

Michelangeli is dead.

She spoke of his artistry, character, sins and passions. 

If any of you hasn’t heard his recording of Rachmaninoff’s 4th Concerto and Ravel’s G-major, go listen to it.  There’s no greater interpretation of either.

After class, I immediately awayed to Tower Records and found the CD.  Again, I was enthralled and intimidated.  How can a human being play with such cool mastery of color and touch!  He painted like DaVinci or Renoir.  Still, although it was consummate playing, where was the singing soul?  The Rachmaninoff especially, for all of its resplendent colors, seemed completely off-the-mark stylistically.

Two years later, I heard his live recording of Gaspard de la nuit.  It was breath-taking; Scarbo was absolutely frightening.  This was a different side of Michelangeli – he was singing and dancing and actually taking serious risks.  You could hear underneath it the Italians’ love of car-racing.  I caught glimpses of his unveiled soul.  A great Horowitz recording would have sent me to the piano inspired; Michelangeli inspired me away from the piano, frustrated.


And then a few years later I move to Rome.  The air is different there; it’s older and fresher and richer all at once, filled with Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, Michelangelo, DaVinci…  I was living in a house full of artists and musicians, my own Villa Medici, a few blocks down the street from the Colosseo.  The Vatican was only a few metro stops away, walking-distance on a nice day.  It’s a city where legendary marble statues line the piazzas and millennia-old monuments form the fabric and soul of the city.  I would get up at dawn and study Beethoven orchestral scores sitting atop a stairwell as long as the Spanish Steps leading up to a Church overlooking the Foro Romano, where the original Roman Senate still stands.  Beethoven had never seemed so fresh and new!

And gradually I came to better understand the statuesque approach to Art of many of the legendary Italian interpreters, from Tebaldi to Toscanini to Michelangeli.  Stone can breathe and sing.  Look into the Madonna’s face in Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Dome at the Vatican and tell me that her soul is not singing!

I became fascinated in the idea of interpretation as sculpture.  Not dry museum sculpture, but living breathing marble.  I had discovered a Looking-Glass to turn my world upside-down; everything suddenly made sense in an opposite way.  I devoured recordings of the great Italian interpreters, studied Italian Art History, lived and breathed Italian Culture, beginning each day for the first year or so with the morning edition of the Corriere della Sera and an espresso, despite my distaste for it { I finally caved in and began ordering caffe americano to mocking glances… }.

And I began to move beyond my fear of Michelangeli and embrace him, making his approach part of my own. 

I realize now that it’s not an unnatural approach – the emphasis is simply different.  Whether you gravitate toward Michelangeli’s cooler, marble approach in performance is a matter of personal preference; however, coming to terms with a sculptured approach to each interpretation in the practice room is absolutely necessary.

I even wonder sometimes whether Sculpture, rather than a subset of Architecture, might be better seen as the Fifth Pillar of Interpretation – Song, Dance, Painting, Architecture, and Sculpture.