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January 2020 marked the centenary of the birth of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. What first comes to mind when his name is mentioned? The classic accounts of Ravel’s G major and Rachmaninov’s Fourth concertos? The shimmering, crystalline colours of his Debussy? His Chopin, Brahms Paganini Variations, or the live Faschingsschwank aus Wien? The tiny public repertoire? The dour, unsmiling stage presence? The long, lank hair, lugubrious demeanour and reputation for cancelling concerts?

This writer, while lost in wonder over some of his recordings and live concerts, has never been an uncritical admirer of ABM (as he was known to his colleagues and associates). Nevertheless, whichever side of the fence you sit, one must admit that he was a very odd character indeed. Always included, quite rightly, in any list of Great Pianists of the 20th Century, he would never be included in a list of its most loveable human beings.

Dreher and Freyer’s riveting film acknowledges this, though some of the opening comments suggest it will be a hagiographic portrait. His former piano technician avers: ‘There aren’t that many exceptional pianists. He’s one of the few who can give us a sense of the greatness of the universe … because when he plays it really seems as if music has no boundaries, that it is infinite. That is the miracle of his playing.’ One hopes we are not going to hear too much of this kind of thing. Another contributor is ABM’s long-serving assistant, Cord Garben. When ABM played, ‘You could feel the room explode with tension, because [he] stages the piece.’ That rings true. But who wants to listen to music when the room is exploding with tension?

A measure of the difficult character with which the filmmakers are dealing is revealed in the opening sequence when, on the first day of filming, they turn up to shoot some footage of this ‘truly unapproachable pianist’ arriving for a concert in Munich in June 1992 (yes, that’s when they began making the documentary). ABM objected to being filmed at the airport and travelling to the concert hall. ‘The presence of cameras irritated the shy pianist and resulted in a house ban for the director from the [Munich] Philharmonic.’ The director in question was Rodney Greenberg, an experienced TV hand who had previously made 260 music programmes. Yet he reveals that ‘[ABM] is the first artist I have not spoken to before filming.’ They record the concert – the Ravel G major with Celibidache – but ABM is not satisfied with the results and orders all copies to be destroyed (they weren’t).

Towards the end of the documentary, Garben reveals that ABM’s decision in Munich was prompted by a mistake in lighting the keyboard. Garben was held responsible by the maestro. This small incident led to the termination of their 17-year relationship without so much as a phone call of explanation.

Musical highlights of the film include Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, Chopin’s Berceuse and (an especial favourite of ABM) Mazurka Op 33/4, given in performances of unmatched poise and beauty. You learn that, like Liszt, all his teaching was given free – ‘out of extreme generosity’, suggests one interviewer. ABM, unsurprisingly not the easiest of interviewees, disagrees. ‘That is part of my world view. I believe that knowledge and experience are a right. Not a privilege.’

We visit his secluded former home in the Alps and are shown round the house by its current owner, Vladimir Ashkenazy. There is much emphasis on ABM’s search for musical perfection: the perfect condition of his piano, the perfect temperature of the hall, his sensitivity and his willingness to cancel a concert if all his demands were not met.

One is left with the impression of an unhappy man with few interests beyond driving his Ferrari very fast and playing the piano (there is no mention of his 30-year marriage, which ended in 1970, or any other relationship). Audiences, it appears, were a necessary evil. In the words of Garben, ‘[Michelangeli] is the only great pianist who does not play with an open heart and a sense of joy.’

JEREMY NICHOLAS Read the full review on Agora Classica

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