In 1963, when I was beginning to explore the world of classical music, there was no internet and, obviously, no YouTube. CD’s were still twenty years in the future. Long-playing, vinyl records were our primary means of discovering new music, and there was a wealth of them for us to choose from. I well remember browsing through my local record store searching for the one record (perhaps two) that insisted on going home with me, and the sense of anticipation with which I placed it on the family turntable for the first time.
I was introduced to Chopin’s second piano sonata in just this way, through Vladimir Horowitz’ 1962 recording for Columbia Records, which also includes works by Schumann, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt. In the liner notes to that recording, Thomas Frost quotes Horowitz as follows:
“All these pieces have been with me a long time. The Chopin sonata I played first in ’22 or ’23. It’s been a good friend throughout my career. You know the story they tell – Chopin was asked if the finale was a ‘light wind over the grave’ and he said, ‘No, just gossiping between two hands.’ He was a moody man, Chopin. But I think this idea of a final sigh or a ghostly wind over the grave is a good one. Perhaps he meant that.”
In the same liner notes, Neville Cardus elaborates on the Chopin sonata as follows:
Schumann’s often-quoted remark about the B-flat Minor Sonata – “Chopin has simply bound together four of his most reckless children” – is taken to task by most modern critics, who feel that the work, despite its unclassical form, is a completely logical entity. In his work on Chopin, Herbert Weinstock has written, “I have heard the sonata played so that it sounded like four separate pieces; the fault was the pianist’s… But I have heard it played…with the complete, overall, four-movement structural and aesthetic-emotional unity of a Mozart piano concerto or Beethoven piano sonata… Calling the B-flat Minor a sonata was neither caprice nor jest; it is a sonata by Chopin.” Mr. Weinstock further feels that, “had Chopin written little else, it would entitle him to a position as peer of the greatest artistic creators.”
I was introduced to Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995) in the same way, through his 1957 recording for Angel Records of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4. Harold Schonberg, in The Great Pianists (1963), has this to say about Michelangeli:
If there is an Italian school, it is represented by the puzzling and redoubtable figure of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, the most important Italian pianist after Busoni (if Busoni be considered Italian). Purely as a playing machine, Michelangeli is a legend to his colleagues, who put him in the Horowitz class as a super-virtuoso. Some of his playing is startling in its sheer pianistic polish and perfection. His fingers can no more hit a wrong note or smudge a passage than a bullet can be veered off course once it has been fired. In addition he is a complete master of tonal application, as evidenced in his performance of Gaspard de la Nuit. By any standards this is one of the triumphs of modern pianism…
Fortunately for all of us, Michelangeli’s artistry is well represented on YouTube, in both video and audio-only clips. The interested reader will find not only his performances of the Ravel and Rachmaninoff concertos that captivated me, and the Gaspard mentioned by Schonberg, but also much by Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Debussy, and many others.
The following video is taken from a 1962 documentary devoted to Michelangeli that includes nearly two hours of Chopin’s music. The four movements of this sonata, and their start times in the video, are as follows:
I. Grave; Doppio movimento – 0:30
II. Scherzo – 8:42
III. Marche funèbre; Lento – 16:13
IV. Presto – 25:43