One of the most enigmatic performers of the 20th century, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was also one of the most compelling and, paradoxically, one of the least-heard pianists of his generation. Michelangeli was famous for having canceled nearly as many performances as he gave, and he committed little of his vast repertory to disc.
Michelangeli was born on January 5, 1920, in Orzinuovi, Italy. His father was a dedicated amateur musician who introduced young Benedetti to the art. After early studies on the violin, Michelangeli took up the piano, entering the Milan Conservatory at the age of ten.
In 1939 Michelangeli's concert career began in earnest after he claimed top honors at the International Piano Competition in Geneva. Of his triumphant performance at the competition, no less a luminary than the great Alfred Cortot exclaimed, "A new Liszt is born!" Service in the Italian Air Force during World War II interrupted Michelangeli's career; taking the stage again at war's end, however, he soon earned a place among the top performers of the day.
In 1960 Michelangeli performed Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto in Vatican City for the Pope. A triumphant 1964 appearance in Moscow reportedly had the audience in an uproar, and in 1965 Michelangeli became one of the first Western artists to concertize extensively in Asia.
In the 1970s and 1980s he made fewer and fewer concert appearances, owing both to consistent health troubles and his growing aversion to public display. During a performance in Bordeaux in October 1988 he suffered an aortic aneurysm onstage; nevertheless, he resumed performing the following season. He gave his last public performance in 1990 and died five years later died from the chronic medical problems that had plagued him since childhood.
Michelangeli regarded the life of a concert pianist as one of labor. His own schedule included upwards of ten hours of practice a day; he suggested to his pupils that they cease practicing only when the pain in the fingers and shoulders became too great for them to continue. Michelangeli took his role as a mentor very seriously; he held various teaching positions in Italy and throughout Europe, and included Martha Argerich and Maurizio Pollini among his pupils.
To many Michelangeli's playing was the ideal blend of technique and uncanny musical depth. His subtlety, revealed in such masterly recordings as Brahms' Paganini Variations, is in restraint and detachment -- calculated to temper power and fury, not to replace it. His performances of Mozart, Haydn, and Scarlatti are particularly esteemed.
Michelangeli never wholly embraced life as a concert artist. He felt that to pour such adulation on a performer was a disgrace, and that it distracted the performer from the very essence of his duty. A deeply private man, Michelangeli had a tendency to distort the truth during interviews, making it difficult for musicologists and historians to build an accurate portrait of his life; he will likely remain a fascinating, little-understood man.