“Music in its purest form” – Remembering Dinu Lipatti

Guest post by Mark Ainley

Today officially marks the 100th anniversary of Dinu Lipatti’s birth and the fascination with this pianist continues unabated, his name continuing to be held in the highest esteem amongst piano fans and professionals alike due the truly exquisite craftsmanship of pianism found in the few recordings that he made before his premature death in 1950. His traversal of Chopin’s Waltzes is regularly singled out as the reference recording, as are his readings of the same composer’s Barcarolle and Third Sonata, and his Bach First Partita and ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ are among the most beloved Bach piano recordings ever made. It seems that each recorded performance by Lipatti is an example of pianistic mastery on every level – technically, emotionally, interpretatively, spiritually.

There are some who have wondered how much of Lipatti’s posthumous fame is the result of his tragic demise at the age of 33. Indeed, a good deal of mystique may be due to testimonials featuring religious terms: his recording producer Walter Legge said he had ‘the qualities of a saint’ and called him ‘a chosen instrument of God’ while Francis Poulenc apparently referred to him as ‘an artist of divine spirituality’. The story of his last recital in Besançon, France – where he was too weak to play the last Chopin Waltz he had programmed and played ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ instead – reads like something out of a Hollywood melodrama.

(Photo credit: Michel Meusy)

However, Lipatti received abundant praise for his playing and musicianship well before Hodgkin’s Lymphoma took its grip. The grandfather of cellist Steven Isserlis was on the jury of the 1933 Vienna Competition (Lipatti famously did not win first prize, much to Alfred Cortot’s consternation) and came home from the first round raving about “a 16-year old pianist from Romania who was so outstanding that he was convinced that he would win and become a world-beater.” The great Alfred Cortot, with whom Lipatti trained for five years, declared him “a second Horowitz” and stated that there was nothing to teach him – “one could, in fact, only learn from you.” Lipatti’s standing as a world-class pianist was evident in his teens, more than a decade and a half before his death, and his fame continued growing with each year.


The only large-scale solo work that Lipatti set down at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios was the Chopin Third Sonata, which won the Charles Cros Academy’s Grand Prix du Disque in 1949. The magnificent performance features a beautiful robust sonority, elegant phrasing, patrician timing, and subtle nuancing that is utterly beguiling:

Lipatti’s most famous recordings were made in Geneva under rather remarkable circumstances. Bolstered by outrageously expensive cortisone injections (paid for by wealthy patrons like Münch, Menuhin, and Sacher), Lipatti was enjoying renewed vitality and so at his doctor’s suggestion Legge had a van of recording equipment sent to Geneva from the Prades festival. A Radio Geneve studio was procured and over the course of ten days in July 1950 Lipatti set down critically acclaimed readings of works by Bach, Mozart, and Chopin that have never been out of the catalogue. The Bach Partita No.1 is particularly transcendent, with Lipatti’s incredibly consistent articulation and voicing, transparent textures, rhythmic momentum, and stunningly clear projection of motifs:

As remarkable as these performances are, Lipatti’s earlier recordings reveal a pianist with far more fire and bravura. A 1947 reading of Chopin’s Waltz in A-Flat Op.34 No.1 is much more virile, bold, and daring than his well-known 1950 account, with sparkling tone, a grand bass sonority, and brilliant runs, as well as some fascinating ‘breaks’ between phrases:

The recording that gives the greatest glimpse of the fullness of Lipatti’s pianistic and interpretative abilities is his April 1948 account of Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso. With rapid-fire repeated notes, taut rhythmic bite, breathtaking runs of extraordinary lightness, creative voicing and pedalling, and graduated glissandi (4:25-4:31) of staggering ferocity and dynamic control (how that last one fades into the faintest pianissimo!), this is a performance needs to be heard (multiple times) to be believed. It is worth keeping in mind that recordings made on 78rpm discs were unedited, with no tape splicing possible, so what you’re hearing is exactly what he played:

The pianist’s last public performance has become the stuff of legend and the recording of that recital is one of the glories of the gramophone. The emotion of the concert comes through in the recording, as well as in images by local photographer Michel Meusy – the transfixed look of intensity on the faces of the audience members reveals the magnetism of the event, and those who were present stated that it was clear that Lipatti did not have long to live (he died 11 weeks later). Most intoxicating to my ears is his mournful reading of Schubert’s G-Flat Impromptu, with a gorgeous singing line soaring over an undulating murmur in the accompaniment, with gloriously peaked phrasing with fluid legato:

A century after Dinu Lipati’s birth, his legacy continues to grow. There are now two websites devoted to his memory – dinulipatti.com and dinulipatti.org – and new publications are forthcoming, with a new edition of his biography being published in Romania alongside the first ever publication of a series of his letters (currently in Romanian but due to be translated). And new recordings by this supreme musician are coming to light: 15 minutes of previously unpublished material – private discs of Scarlatti and Brahms – was recently discovered and will be released in a multi-pianist compilation on the Marston Records label, and the search for more continues. In the meantime, we can continue to enjoy the stellar playing of this master musician, whose playing was, in the words of Herbert von Karajan, “no longer the sound of the piano but music in its purest form.”

 

Mark Ainley is an internationally recognized authority on the art of piano playing and historical recordings of great pianists. His clear insights provide important details about the mastery of the pianists of the past and present through his magazine articles, blog (The Piano Files) and social media pages, CD productions and liner notes, and lecture-demonstrations.

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