Thursday, August 23, 2012

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Marcelle Meyer plays Debussy

Marcelle Meyer met Debussy at the premiere performance of Erik Satie's Parade, for which she was the pianist. To give you an idea of the production: the mise-en-scene was by Jean Cocteau, the sets were painted by Picasso, and the choreography was by Leonide Massine, with orchestra conducted by Ernest Ansermet - the 20-year-old Marcelle Meyer was the pianist. Debussy was present at this event, which took place just under a year before he died.

Meyer is said to have been coached by the ailing Debussy in how to play his Preludes, and certainly her playing is unique in its combination of impressionistic colours and timing. Meyer also studied with Ricardo Vines, who had premiered several of the composer's works, and she clearly had insight into his art. While she recorded the two books of Debussy Preludes in 1957 - a recording that was unissued until 1989! - she also committed 3 of them to disc in 1947, among them an incredible "La terrasse des audiences au claire de lune" in which time seems to stand still. Her tone production and dynamic range are perfectly proportioned, and she stretches phrases in a way that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats. This recording was never issued on LP and had its first CD issue on a set of her complete commercial recordings produced by EMI France in 2008.


I have been more active on my facebook fan page recently, The Piano Files with Mark Ainley, posting regular YouTube clips and the like. I had originally intended for this blog to be for longer features, and yet I see the value of adding some of what has been going on on facebook, in addition to longer features. Stay tuned for some of the clips that have been getting great feedback on that page - and if you are on facebook, join the page!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dinu Lipatti: The Chopin Concerto Scandal

In 1966, EMI issued a previously unknown recording of Chopin’s Piano Concerto #1 in E Minor featuring the pianist Dinu Lipatti. No orchestra or conductor was named. On the record jacket of the British release of the recording in 1971 was the following statement:

"This recording includes a performance by Dinu Lipatti of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. It comes from a tape, which EMI acquired, made at a concert in Switzerland in May, 1948. Although there is no question that the performance is by Dinu Lipatti, extensive enquiries have failed to establish the name of the conductor and orchestra. However, this particular performance has not been published in the UK before now and is therefore a musical document of rare value."

When EMI reissued the recording in 1981, the BBC broadcast the record, and a listener wrote in noting its similarity with a Supraphon recording dating from the early 1950s featuring the distinguished Chopin pianist Halina Czerny-Stefanska. Tests by BBC and EMI revealed that the two recordings were identical.

When the news broke, Dr. Marc Gertsch of Bern presented a tape to EMI of an authentic live Lipatti performance from a radio broadcast of a Zurich concert given February 7, 1950, featuring the Zurich-Tonhalle Orchestra conducted by Otto Ackermann. The tape formed the basis of a new LP and all previous pressings of the erroneously-attributed recording were withdrawn worldwide.

The behind-the-scenes situations leading up to the release of the Czerny-Stefanska recording are as follows.

In 1960, Walter Legge was approached by one Mr. Kaspar of Zurich, who owned a tape of the Lipatti/Ackermann performance of the Chopin Concerto in excellent sound. EMI expressed an interest in issuing the recording, but according to Legge, Kaspar vanished with the tape when copyright inquiries were made as to who the copyright owner was.

Shortly afterwards, another collector presented another tape of the Chopin Concerto to Madeleine Lipatti. EMI has said that while there were no detailed indications as to the origin of the tape, Madeleine, Legge, and Ansermet agreed that Lipatti was the pianist. EMI made inquiries into the identities of the orchestra (it was thought it might be the Concertgebouw or La Scala), but to no avail. The situation was exasperating to Walter Legge and Madeleine Lipatti. Madeleine wrote to Legge (in French) on October 17, 1963:

"I think that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the references to its origin. The person who sold this tape to the man in Basel said that it consisted of a recording made by Dinu Lipatti with the Warsaw Orchestra with a conductor named Mawricki – but Dinu never played with these people! It is obviously a vicious lie… We are certain that Dinu played this Chopin Concerto only in Zurich since magnetos were invented! We can have no doubt."

Madeleine’s identification of a purported conductor and orchestra runs counter to EMI’s story that the origin of the tape was unclear. In Legge’s reply of October 23, he says:

"If as you say Dinu only played the Chopin Concerto in Zurich after the invention of the magneto, there must have been two performances or a rehearsal and a performance, because in the one tape I have heard there are audience noises and in the other there is absolute silence."

While Madeleine was clearly expressing doubts as to the authenticity of the recording, it did not seem to cross Legge's mind that the tape might not be authentic. He did not comment on the significant interpretative differences between the Zurich performance (which he had presumably heard) and the other tape, such as the drastically different tempo of the first movement, or the fact that the orchestral introduction was left intact in the recording that he thought might be a rehearsal, whereas it was cut in the authenticated Zurich performance.

Legge left EMI in 1964 before the situation was resolved, and EMI continued its involvement in the matter in his absence. An internal EMI letter from May 1965 summarizes the situation at that time:

"As nothing further could be done, the project lay dormant until a new tape arrived on the scene some months ago, of which the following situation pertains:

a.The new performance is not the same as the previous tape, but those who knew Lipatti insist that it is he playing (Legge, Mrs. Lipatti, Ansermet, etc.)

b.The orchestra is not the same.

c.The conductor is not Ackermann.”

A letter by M.W. Allen of the International Artists Department dated December 7, 1965 reveals some interesting information:

"...we have ascertained that the performance is not that with the Zurich Tonhalle conducted by Otto Ackermann. We have in fact an inferior tape of this performance and it is not the same."

While EMI’s version of the events stressed that Kaspar had withdrawn his excellent quality tape, it appears that EMI was nevertheless in possession of another authentic copy of this performance. In the 1990s, a Lipatti student presented me with a private LP of another tape source of the Zurich concert. This source tape had a one-minute gap in the first movement and radio interference from neighbouring radio stations. It is unclear whether this is the same tape that EMI had in its possession in the 1960s, but it does reveal that there was more than one copy of the Zurich concert in circulation.

Despite the obvious differences in interpretation, EMI and the listed Lipatti experts still felt that the 'silent audience' tape was an authentic Lipatti performance – or perhaps they simply wished it to be true. EMI felt, in the words of Peter Andry (May 10, 1965), that "it is thought worth taking a risk in order to issue the tape which is good and contains a fine performance." EMI’s classification of what is 'good' seems to have been recorded sound quality. As they believed that Lipatti was performing on the sonically-superior tape (perhaps they had not been made aware of Mrs. Lipatti’s doubts, which had been expressed to Legge in a private letter; it is nevertheless in EMI archives), this was the performance that was released.

All the while, Dr. Marc Gertsch of Bern had in his possession a complete authentic tape of the Zurich Tonhalle concert. At the age of 15 in 1951, Gertsch had met a collector who had recorded the broadcast in wonderful sound, and having no sophisticated means of transferring the recording, he made a tape by using a handheld microphone. As the recording was progressing, the battery on his player started to wear out, leading to a speed shift as the performance progressed. Regrettably, the collector from whom he had copied the recording later erased his tape with a Wagner opera (leading Gertsch to say, "One more reason to hate Wagner!").

When the erroneous Lipatti performance was released, Gertsch approached Madeleine Lipatti with his authentic recording and expressed his doubts that the performer on the LP was really Lipatti. (Lipatti’s biographers had also expressed their reservations in print, noting that the playing on the record lacked certain trademark Lipatti nuances.) She listened to his tape and threw a tantrum, saying that it was a terrible tape with poor sound. Gertsch felt that she had realized that the released performance was not authentic.

When it was proven in 1981 that the issued recording did not feature the playing of Dinu Lipatti, Madeleine Lipatti was the only person still alive who had authenticated the tape, Legge and Ansermet having already died. Gertsch offered the tape to EMI under the condition that no legal action be taken against Madeleine, who was then quite ill (she would die a short time later). Gertsch was given one copy of the released LP for his efforts.

EMI claimed, when their mistake was discovered, "that there was no suggestion of any 'conscious deception'". While they cannot be accused of conscious deception, there was some serious lack of good judgment. The fact that they had an authentic tape of the Zurich concert in their possession when they released the unidentifiable tape is disturbing. If it were the same alternative source as the one I received in the 1990s, the gap in the first movement would have rendered it unsuitable for widespread release on EMI. However, the fact that they were able to listen to the two performances side-by-side – something that was not possible according to the official story that Kaspar had run off with the tape - indicates a lack of discernment and musical understanding on the part of those making the decisions.

Lipatti was a very consistent pianist, and yet the two released performances are so different that it is difficult even for the average listener to imagine that they could be the same pianist. Indeed, in around 1970, when the UK release was being prepared, one EMI employee who had been given the tape listened to it and marched into his supervisor’s office, saying "If that’s Dinu Lipatti, I’m Marie-Antoinette." He listed all of the musical reasons it could not be Lipatti (the playing was weaker and the phrasing more feminine, for example) but the reply was "Well, his name is on the box. It’s Lipatti."

As for the purported recording date of May 1948 – Lipatti had on May 30, 1948 performed the Bartok Third Concerto in Baden-Baden, a tape of which Legge obtained around the same time as the Chopin Concerto came to his attention. His hope was to release the Bartok on the same record as the Chopin, but Paul Sacher blocked its release because he was unhappy with his conducting in the performance. Since the Germans were using tape in the 40s, perhaps EMI believed that the performance of the Chopin Concerto came from a German concert given by Lipatti around the same time as the Bartok was performed. However, it would not have taken much time to investigate whether Lipatti had performed the Chopin E Minor in that period.

It is worth noting that a small reel-to-reel tape was found by Gertsch in Madeleine Lipatti’s collection when she died. It included an excerpt from the second movement of the concerto and the two Etudes Lipatti played at the Zurich concert, in excellent sound. It is likely a fragment of Kaspar’s tape which he had copied as proof of the tape he had in his possession. The fragments were released on the CD "Lipatti: Cornerstones" on the Archiphon label (now out of print), along with a new remastering of Gertsch’s tape. EMI declined to buy this material when it was offered to them for the 50th anniversary of Lipatti’s death, preferring instead to continue reissuing Keith Hardwick’s less-than-ideal 1981 transfer.

All records of Dinu Lipatti in the Chopin First Concerto that were printed after 1981 and which list Otto Ackermann and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra in the credits consist of the authentic performance featuring Dinu Lipatti. All LPs that do not list an orchestra and conductor, and that have May 1948 as the recording date, are in fact the Halina Czerny-Stefanska performance. Among these are:

German Columbia C 80934
Electrola 1C 049-01716
Electrola set 1C 197-53780/6 (some editions)
EMI (UK) HQM 1248
EMI (UK) set RLS 749
Seraphim (USA) 60007

© Mark Ainley, 2007

And here is a new remastering which I have done of the first movement in January 2010 based on the 'archiphon' label release of 2000, which I assisted with. While the sound is still not ideal, it provides a greater appreciation for Lipatti's playing: his full dynamic range, exquisite phrasing, lyrical tone, and remarkable dynamism.

And here is the 'master tape' excerpt of the second movement - if only the whole tape existed in this sound quality!

The last movement from an alternate tape source, which includes the applause not on the currently released version

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Encounters With Dinu Lipatti

My first encounter with the art of the pianist Dinu Lipatti came when I was a high school student of about 16. I had developed an interest in historical recordings and great pianists, and I was looking through the few records in my school’s collection. On a compilation record on the appropriately-named Angel Records was a Schubert Impromptu played by one Dinu Lipatti, stating that the performance was from ‘Dinu Lipatti’s Last Recital’. I found this morbid title intriguing and so asked our music teacher about him; ‘Oh, he was a pianist’s pianist,’ she replied.

I decided to investigate. I found all the records that I could, and was amazed at the playing on each. His Bach in particular struck me for its poise and clarity, and his life story intrigued me. The combination of his illness and early death (he died of Hodgkin’s Disease at age 33), incredible artistry, and scant recordings made for a fascinating story. I was also impressed by the number of famous pianists who had expressed such profound admiration for him: Backhaus, Kempff, Fischer, Schnabel, Haskil. He was clearly a sensitive and talented artist.

And then I heard his recording of Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso, and things took on another dimension. This was not the playing of a sickly musician – it was an incredibly powerful performance that featured stunning feats of virtuosity that continued to amaze me one listening after another (and still do over 20 years later). I simply could not grasp the speed of his repeated notes, the depth of his sonority, and the searing power of his graduated glissandos (at 4:25-4:32). There was clearly another side to this musician and his artistry than the bulk of his recordings demonstrated, and I wanted to know more.

As I read more about him and learned about his repertoire, I wondered why there were not bootleg concert recordings of Lipatti on the labels that featured ‘live’ performances of the likes of Fischer, Schnabel, and Gieseking. Surely there must be more recordings from radio performances, I thought. When I read his widow Madeleine’s tribute in a memorial book, my jaw dropped: she stated that he had played the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata at the same broadcast session as the Enescu Third Sonata that had been issued on EMI. Where was the recording of the Waldstein, I wondered?

Thus began 20 years ago a quest for Lipatti recordings that has bore interesting fruit. While no Waldstein has yet been found (I still believe it will), a number of treasures have been discovered and released. In 1990 I went to Baden-Baden to obtain a copy of a broadcast recording Lipatti had made of the Bartok Third Concerto, another recording I had sought since learning he had played it – it is the only recording of Lipatti in a 20th Century piano concerto from the standard repertoire that has been found. The next year, while checking the card catalogue at the British Library Sound Archive, I discovered an off-the-air recording of Lipatti playing Liszt’s La Leggierezza (it was filed under ‘Liszt’ but not under ‘Lipatti’).

And in 1993 I was able to introduce Lipatti collector and fan Dr. Marc Gertsch to my German colleague Werner Unger to arrange the transfer of his private Lipatti archive, which included live performances of the Liszt First Concerto and Lipatti’s own Danses Roumaines and Concertino in Classical Style. Along with test recordings from 1936 and 1941, and some other treasures, these recordings were issued on a 2-CD set on Unger’s label ‘archiphon’ that we called “Lipatti: Les Inedits”, which was awarded a German Music Critic’s Award. In 2000, EMI released a CD that I had proposed in 1991 featuring Lipatti in 3 piano concertos: the Bach-Busoni D Minor, the Liszt E-Flat, and the Bartok Third. What was once the dream of collectors can now easily be found in record stores.

Over the years I had the opportunity to meet many people who knew Lipatti or who shared my fascination. His biographer Grigore Bargauanu in Paris has been a strong supporter of my work, and I helped him with discographical details for his biography. Hugues Cuenod, the Swiss tenor born in 1902 who was a dear friend of Lipatti, invited me to his home many times and spoke at length – we had many fascinating discussions, no less interesting since I was about one-quarter his age when we first met! I interviewed his students Bela Siki (in Japan, when we were both living there), Robert Weisz, Charles Reiner, Louise-Antoinette Lombard, and Jacques Chapuis. I had the chance to visit the famous soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in her home to speak about Lipatti as well. In the past few months Rumanian producer Florica Gheorghescu and a Rumanian ambassador have come to support my research.

Lipatti’s playing has the power to impact all his listeners – two stories from my teens illustrate this point. In the late 1980s I was working in the classical music department at a record store in Montreal, and the first batch of Lipatti CDs was released. I put on the famous chorale ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,’ which had been a leitmotif in Lipatti’s life – every person in the store came to the staff desk to see what was playing. The CD sold out before the 3-minute piece had finished playing, and we had to take requests for future copies. A year or two later, I witnessed the great pianist Leon Fleisher giving a masterclass. He said, “There is only one pianist who for me has been able to go directly to the heart of the music, and that was Dinu Lipatti” – upon the mention of his name, a murmur of ‘aaah’ went through the audience, a moving sign that the pianist who had died many decades earlier was still known to music lovers.

In my opinion, Lipatti’s playing occupies a spiritual realm that so many artists fail to reach. He transcends the dichotomy of ‘Urtext’ versus ‘performer’ by being true to the ‘Ur-Spirit’ (as he termed it, meaning ‘original spirit’) of the work, thereby creating interpretations that transcend both the time in which they were composed and the time in which Lipatti performed them. He seems to be tapping into the source of inspiration of the music of which the printed page is but a shadow, simultaneously providing the architectural overview of a blueprint and the spirit of a living organism. The precision of his touch, clarity of his phrasing, transparency of his voicing, and purity of his tone are put to the service of his profound intellect and the intentions of the composer, resulting in interpretations that transfix the listener with their inevitability.

In recent years I have felt frustrated by the lack of new discoveries, and yet there is still hope. Late in 2008 I obtained a copy of some recordings I had sought for 19 years: a series of records that Lipatti had made with the cellist Antonio Janigro in 1947, among them the first movement of Beethoven’s Third Cello Sonata and the slow movement of a Bach Sonata; the former is the only known recording of Lipatti playing Beethoven (so far)! Plans are underway to digitally improve the sound of the recently rediscovered source material, and additionally to retransfer the other private recordings that came to light in the 90s in time for the 60th anniversary of Lipatti’s death in 2010. It is known that more private recordings of Lipatti than have been found existed in his widow’s hands and the search continues. It is my hope that the world will have an opportunity to appreciate the lesser-known aspects of the great Rumanian artist Dinu Lipatti and experience the power his heartfelt musical interpretations can bring.

© Mark Ainley

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dinu Lipatti - The Complete Commercial Piano Concerto Recordings

These are the liner notes I wrote for the Opus Kura label's release earlier this year of Dinu Lipatti's commercial Concerto recordings. The disc was recently awarded Best Reissue of 2008 by the Taiwanese classical CD magazine 'Muzik'.

When the great pianist Dinu Lipatti died in 1950 at the age of 33, he had never left Europe. However, his few recordings have been supplemented by broadcast performances and released worldwide, securing him a legendary status in the pantheon of pianists. These historical documents still reflect a mere fraction of his active repertoire: Lipatti performed 23 works for piano and orchestra (he practiced two of his sixteen ‘active’ concertos daily), ranging from the Bach-Busoni D Minor to Bartok’s Third. While we now have a total of nine concerted works represented on disc, in the studio Lipatti recorded only two concertos from the standard repertoire, the Grieg and Schumann, in addition to his own Concertino in Classical Style. This CD unites these three performances on one disc for the first time.

Lipatti first performed the Grieg Concerto as a 16-year-old on November 3, 1933, so it was a work he knew intimately when he recorded it at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios on September 18 and 19, 1947. This marvellous recording reveals Lipatti’s synthesis of the highest level of musicality with transcendent technique. While this concerto has often been dismissed as a showpiece, Lipatti’s reading is a superb model of how virtuoso works can be played with impeccable style. (One can imagine how gloriously Lipatti might have played the Tchaikovsky B-Flat Minor Concerto, a work that EMI memos reveal he had agreed to record with Karajan in 1949.) His massive yet clear sound, which is particularly appreciable in the opening chords and in the cadenza, is evidence that Lipatti was an extremely powerful pianist before Hodgkin’s Disease tightened its grip. His lyrical poise, rhythmic certainty, and luscious tone contribute to this recording being one of the all-time best-sellers of this work.

At the beginning of 1948, Lipatti wrote to his teacher Florica Musicescu to tell her of the wonderful reviews that his recording of the Grieg Concerto had received, adding, “Now Columbia want me to record the Schumann (which I studied in the summer of 1945) in April with Karajan on the podium. If such an opportunity thrills me, as you can well imagine, the concerto frightens me somewhat. I’m afraid of not being sufficiently ‘Schumannian.’” Lipatti played the work in public for the first time in Basel on March 16 before the London sessions of April 9 and 10, which were followed by a concert performance April 11 at the Royal Albert Hall. The recording has been hailed as a marvel and like its partner the Grieg is still held up as a standard by which others are judged, and yet Lipatti was not entirely satisfied. “I came across one unexpected complication: a remarkable but super-classical conductor who, instead of helping my timid romantic gestures, held back my good intentions.” If the tempi are on the brisk side, there is nevertheless a sense of unbridled optimism in the performance; Lipatti’s golden tone lovingly highlights melodies, and arpeggios are emboldened by his masterful accenting. The recording would be among the last to capture Lipatti full of such innocent exuberance – six weeks after these sessions, his health worsened considerably, and his later recordings are tinged with a darker sense of foreboding.

Lipatti’s Concertino in Classical Style was first performed by Lipatti and Charles Münch in Paris on April 30, 1938, when Lipatti was still studying at Cortot’s École Normale de Musique. The conductor Hans von Benda invited Lipatti to record the work in Berlin in January 1943, and their concert performance a week prior to the January 14 sessions was warmly received by the normally frosty audience. Despite the dim recording having been made before Lipatti was in his prime, one notices his lush tone, deft fingerwork, and clear phrasing. The syncopated middle section of the third movement foreshadows the central section of the Adagio religioso of Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto (1945), a work Lipatti would later champion. The recording is a fascinating insight into both Lipatti’s early years as a pianist and his potential as a composer.

(c) Mark Ainley

Dinu Lipatti - The Complete Abbey Road Solo Recordings

These are the notes that I wrote for a recently released CD of Dinu Lipatti's solo recordings on the Japanese 'Opus Kura' label.

The great pianist Dinu Lipatti might have been forgotten today if he had not left a small but significant legacy of recordings. Before his death of Hodgkin’s Disease at age 33 in 1950, Lipatti recorded but a few hours of music for EMI’s sublabel Columbia. Almost 60 years later, this output has been heard internationally, supplemented by a handful of broadcast recordings, and Lipatti’s discs continue to be bestsellers. More than half of Lipatti’s solo recordings were made when he enjoyed a period of remission in July 1950, mere months before his death December 2nd. Recorded in a small radio studio in Geneva, these performances are justly acclaimed for stunningly sensitive playing and highly refined musicality, yet they suffer from compressed piano sound and overly close microphone placement. Lipatti’s sessions at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in 1947 and 1948, on the wonderful Steinway 299 used by great pianists such as Cortot, Schnabel, and Moiseiwitsch in their legendary recordings, provide the clearest insight into his pianistic aptitude. While much of his solo output consists of works that fit on a single 78 (with the notable exception of the Chopin Third Sonata included here), each work in his discography is a gem. This CD unites all of Dinu Lipatti’s issued solo recordings made in EMI’s Abbey Road studios, with a bonus track of his first commercial recording, a four-hands performance with his composition teacher Nadia Boulanger that was recorded in Paris on February 25, 1937.

Lipatti said that he loved the music of Bach above all others, and he was an ideal interpreter of this composer’s contrapuntal works thanks to his ability to highlight melodies so distinctly that each voice could be heard independently. Lipatti was particularly known for his performance of Myra Hess’s arrangement of the Chorale “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”, which became the leitmotif of his life: it was the first work he played at his first recital (as a tribute to his recently deceased composition teacher, Paul Dukas) and it was the final work he played before the public at his last recital. While it is generally believed that Lipatti played this work only as an encore, he also sometimes began his programs with it. The recording here was made September 24, 1947, the sixth of seven attempts starting February 20 that year to achieve a satisfactory result. Walter Legge wrote that Lipatti only reluctantly agreed to this performance’s release in Italy and Switzerland in order to satisfy the demands of his admirers, but the disc was in fact distributed internationally – the copy used for the transfer on this disc was pressed in the UK.

In addition to the works of Bach, Lipatti also regularly programmed the works of Scarlatti in his recitals. He played at least a half dozen of the sonatas but only recorded two for EMI – another was recorded in Bucharest in 1941. Both the E Major and D Minor Sonatas feature glowing tone, crisp articulation, and rhythmic certainty.

Lipatti’s fame is primarily as an interpreter of Chopin, due in large part to the international release of his acclaimed 1950 cycle of the Chopin Waltzes. His earlier recordings of this composer’s works do them both even greater justice, thanks to the full-bodied piano tone and luscious phrasing he achieves on the Abbey Road Studio’s Steinway. His Chopin B Minor Sonata from March 1 and 4, 1947 is a monumental performance that highlights the composer’s advanced harmonic structures and powerful melodies, superbly underlined by Lipatti’s unique phrasing and accenting – it is little wonder that this performance won the Grand Prix du Disque in 1949. His September 24, 1947 recording of the Waltz in A Flat, which served as a ‘filler’ for the last 78 side of the Grieg Concerto recorded earlier that month, demonstrates a more virtuosic bravura approach than his 1950 performance. The D-Flat Nocturne from February 20, 1947 is an example of sensual melodic phrasing and spacious pacing. The Barcarolle, recorded April 21, 1948, was not sanctioned for release by Lipatti and was issued posthumously – despite some phrasing that is relatively less polished than his approved recordings, this interpretation is elegant and magisterial.

Lipatti was a supreme interpreter of Liszt, and it is regrettable that only the Sonetto Del Petrarca #104 has survived from his commercial sessions (a 1946 Columbia recording of La Leggierezza made in Zurich at Lipatti’s first session for EMI has never been located, though a magnificent 1947 BBC broadcast performance has been issued). His dramatic emphasis and heroic approach combine with poetic sensitivity to create an incandescent performance of great power and intensity.

Lipatti’s vibrant voicing of chords served Brahms’ music extremely well, and it is a shame that he made no official solo recordings of his oeuvre (though some wonderful test recordings from 1936 and 1941 survive). His 1937 performance of selected Brahms Waltzes, played four-hands with his composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, is full of rhythmic vitality and harmonic depth. In Lipatti’s first commercial recording, we can hear that the 20-year-old pianist already possessed the qualities for which he was to become internationally known a decade later.

Lipatti’s disc of Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso is perhaps the only recording with which he was fully satisfied. A marvel of polyphonic textures and technical wizardry, this vibrant interpretation is filled with dazzling fingerwork and stunning feats of virtuosity. The double-note glissandos near the end of the work are played with such speed and dynamic control that, as producer Walter Legge wrote, it is scarcely possible to believe that they were played by the human hand. This single performance is enough to demonstrate that Lipatti was not the ‘weak’ pianist that stories about his illness would lead us to believe – he in fact ranks amongst the most technically accomplished virtuosi of the piano.

It is challenging not to wish for Lipatti’s recording career to have progressed differently. Quite why EMI continued to record this great artist in ‘encore’-style works after the success of his Chopin B Minor Sonata is unclear. (Nevertheless, it is a shame that some April 1948 sessions at which Lipatti was scheduled to record Debussy’s La Soiree dans Grenade, de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, and two Scarlatti Sonatas were cancelled.) By the time the rather introverted pianist requested to record Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques as reported in EMI correspondence dated April 21, 1948, it was too late – that date marked what would be his last session in London, his health later deteriorating and preventing further trips to London from his Swiss home. (It was only in 1950 that Walter Legge would arrange sessions in Geneva – he overturned suggestions in 1949 to record Bartok’s Third Concerto and the Chopin Waltzes in Switzerland.) If different repertoire choices had been made for Lipatti’s recordings – Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata and Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin were in his repertoire at the time – we might have a fuller representation of who he was as an artist. The performances on this disc, however, reveal transcendental playing of a uniquely gifted musician, a prince of pianists who might have been king.

(c) Mark Ainley