The Piano Files

Dinu Lipatti: The Myth and The Musician

The pianism of Dinu Lipatti continues to inspire awe and reverence around the world more than 70 years after he died.
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At what was to be his last recital, the Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti, weakened by Hodgkin’s Disease, was unable to play the final Chopin Waltz he had programmed. He left the stage, but the audience — overflowing from the hall, seated on the floor and down the stairs outside — continued to wait for what seemed like an eternity, unable to move. The pianist then returned to play the Bach-Hess chorale for which he was justly famous: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Ten weeks later, he died at the age of 33.

dinu lipatti
Dinu Lipatti playing at his last recital. Photo: Michel Meusy.

The name Dinu Lipatti continues to evoke the reverence and breathless admiration shown at that now legendary concert, not just on the part of amateur music lovers and record collectors: Lipatti had earned esteem from the greatest pianists of his own time — Wilhelm Backhaus, Clara Haskil, Alfred Cortot, Artur Schnabel, Edwin Fischer — and top artists of every generation since have continued to venerate him for the depth and clarity of his interpretations. From Leon Fleisher, Sviatoslav Richter, and Martha Argerich to Yuja Wang and Benjamin Grosvenor, the verdict is unanimous: Lipatti was the pianistic ideal.

For decades, the notes published with Lipatti’s internationally bestselling records told tales as mesmerizing as his playing: how the godson of George Enescu came in second at a Competition in Vienna when he was 16, leading the great Cortot to resign from the jury in protest and to invite the pianist to train with him. Lipatti went on to produce a handful of records that were “small in number but of the purest gold” because, as his producer suggested, he was a perfectionist with a small repertoire, requiring three years to prepare the Tchaikovsky Concerto and four for the Emperor. He was said to have only played one Beethoven Sonata, the Waldstein, in his final two years because Artur Schnabel had insisted on it. And then there was that famous last recital. Lipatti’s biography seemed to have all the makings of a Hollywood melodrama.

However, most of these oft-repeated anecdotes are simply not true.

It is important to separate the fact from fiction in order to more fully understand not just the artist but also to hear more accurately how he played. His playing is every bit as great as his reputation warrants, and certain perceptions from these fanciful stories have coloured how his pianism has been perceived.

Cortot did not resign from the jury of the Vienna Competition — he only refused to sign Lipatti’s certificate — and he does not appear to have invited the young Romanian to study in Paris. However, once Lipatti arrived there the following year to audition at Cortot’s school, the eminent French pianist immediately recognized him and insisted he study with him, and it is documented that after a masterclass performance, Cortot said he had nothing to teach him (he repeated this assertion in a written tribute to Lipatti after his death).

More importantly, the colourful claims that Lipatti had a small repertoire are patently false: he in fact performed 23 concertos in public in his short career — including the Emperor, which he played years before he met the producer who would famously state that he needed years to learn it. Private letters indicate that he hoped to record substantially but it seems that postwar material shortages in the UK held back all the leading pianists recording in London at the time: Cortot, Schnabel, Solomon, and Moiseiwitsch also produced a limited number of discs in those years.

Putting the nail in the coffin of those fanciful tales, correspondence the EMI record label’s archives indicate the pianist had not only requested to record a Beethoven Concerto but also agreed to do the Tchaikovsky one year after having been asked to, but it was the company that axed the project. He also played four Beethoven Sonatas publicly, regularly programming the Waldstein not only in the last two years of his life but in the last decade (Schnabel had nothing to do with it) — alas, no live or broadcast recording has yet been found.

As for his final appearance: he was indeed extremely weak at that time, and it is true that he could not play the final Chopin Waltz — but when he returned to the piano, it was to play three Bach encores. While a recording of the recital as broadcast was found and released (it is one of the most famous recorded concerts of all time), no tape of those encores has been located.

The portrait of Lipatti as a genteel perfectionist who was weak and frail has overshadowed the truly bold and daring nature of his playing before illness tightened its grip. About half of his studio recordings — those that are particularly well-known — were made when he was in a brief remission, in a small studio that didn’t accurately capture his nuanced playing and full-bodied tone. Among these is an account of the Chopin Waltzes (not to be confused with the readings from his final recital), a cycle forever held up as the greatest version on disc. The final Waltz that Lipatti was unable to play at that concert was in fact the 2nd, as in concert and on record he played the 14 pieces in a non-chronological sequence. Here is that revered 1950 studio recording:

There is much to admire here: transparent textures, elegant phrasing, clear tone, and subtle nuancing. And yet as fine as this performance is, it is far more restrained, controlled, and ‘pristine’ than a frequently overlooked recording he made of this same work 3 years earlier at EMI’s famous Abbey Road Studios, when he was not as ill and was using a much more responsive instrument:

The difference is staggering: Lipatti’s playing here is bold and vivacious, with dashing runs and dramatic pauses, and an enormous sonority. In many ways they don’t sound like the same pianist at all, as there is a blazing intensity and fire in the 1947 account that had dimmed due to his suffering (the refinement is there in both, however). Had more recordings been made during his prime — and of the larger-scale repertoire he played in concert at the time (the Waldstein, Schumann’s Études symphoniques, Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin), we might have a very different perception of him.

What may be the most stunning recording Lipatti ever made is a truly mind-blowing account of Ravel’s knuckle-busting Alborada del gracioso. It is the only solo recording of the composer that he set down, in a session that was among his last at Abbey Road — soon after, he fell so ill that he gave almost no concerts for a year. This performance belies all signs of any illness, with incredible rapid-fire repeated notes, explosive climaxes, a vivacious rhythmic pulse, and incredible buoyancy. Most stunning of all are the glissandi in thirds and fourths a minute before the end — 4:24 to 4:31 — that make every other pianist sound weak in comparison (how ironic). Also important to keep in mind: this recording was made with no precision editing, so what you hear is exactly what Lipatti played ‘live’ in the studio.

It is incredible that mere months after this pianist died, profound misrepresentations about his life and artistry began to circulate and continue to do so, despite evidence now being available to the contrary. This makes one wonder how much of what has been written about other legendary performers and composers is equally inaccurate (indeed, this is often the case).

One thing is clear and irrefutable: Dinu Lipatti was one of the most astounding pianists ever to have graced the concert stage and to have produced records, both when he was in vibrant health and also ravaged by illness. There are profound lessons to be learned in hearing all of his recordings.

Website: thepianofiles.com

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