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CLAVIER - May/June, 2002

by Jacques Leiser and Ates Orga

Some consider the legendary Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli to have been one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. When he won the first Geneva International Musical Competition in 1939 "Alfred Cortot exclaimed, 'A New Liszt is born,' an accolade to become commonplace down the years."

Jacques Leiser, who was Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli's manager for several years, interviewed Giuliana Michelangeli in Brescia, Italy in 2000. A forthcoming book will include Leiser's memories of working with such legendary pianists as Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli, Claudio Arrau, Lazar Berman, Maurizio Pollini, and Sviatoslav Richter.

Ates Orga resides near London, England, where he is a writer and record producer specializing in pianists and conductors. He is on the professional staff of Istanbul Technical University. A forthcoming book (Kahn & Averill) profiles modern players and compares recordings of the standard piano repertoire.

Many music lovers believe the legendary Arturo Benedetti-Michelangeli was the greatest Italian pianist of the 20th century. Although he could play the entire piano repertoire by the age of 20, he is best remembered for his interpretations of Classical repertoire as well as Debussy and Ravel. Brescia, Italy was the home of Michelangeli, a child prodigy born on January 5, 1920 who played the piano by the age of four, before he could speak. His wife Giuliana, whom he married when he was 23, remembers family stories of how Arturo loved music before he could read and that "he sang before he could speak, shaking his head, just as he would do as a man."
Michelangeli's father, a lawyer and composer who taught theory, harmony, counterpoint, and piano, trained his son in those early years. The talented youth attended the Milan Conservatory and later, in 1939, won the first Geneva International Musical Competition. "When he finished playing, Alfred Cortot exclaimed, 'A new Liszt is born,' an accolade to become commonplace down the years." In 1949 he started the F. Busoni Competition with Cesare Nordio, the director of the Monteverdi Conservatory in Bolzano. Throughout his life Michelangeli taught, performed on the great concert stages of the world, and he left a legacy of recordings (Telefunken, EMI, Decca, and DG) for listeners when he died in 1995. His wife Giuliana traveled the world at his side and shares her me'mories of this great concert artist.

Did Michelangeli prefer teaching privately, in the conservatory, or in masterclasses?

On principle he did not like giving private lessons, although he did this when he was young. In Italy pianists have to complete eight years of piano education at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory before they can teach. Michelangeli passed this stage when he was only 11, and he often was the substitute teacher for his father who was not well.
One day an 18-year-old girl, Carla Tretti, arrived for a lesson, and his father told her to return the next day and Arturo would hear her. The following day Arturo opened the door and she entered the studio, said nothing, and just waited. Arturo waited too and said nothing. After a long time she asked for the son of the Maestro, so he gestured using the same circling gesture with his arm that he would do with all of his students. The girl played the Pathetique Sonata, and Arturo listened with great attention but without speaking. When she finished, he went to the piano and played the sonata as only he could - perfectly. She was amazed and often told me of her astonishment.
At age 19 Arturo won the Geneva International Musical Competition, and Mussolini gave him a position at the Martini Conservatory in Bologna, honoris causa. Michelangeli always loved teaching, but he was often misunderstood because rather than train the stars of the piano, he wanted to develop good musicians, good teachers.

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                         Copyright 2008 Jacques Leiser