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 These historical documents still reflect a mere fraction of his active repertoire: Lipatti performed 23 works for piano and orchestra (he practiced two of his sixteen ‘active’ concertos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

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Tragedy of Joseph Villa

In the early 90s, I received a cassette from Gregor Benko, founding president of the International Piano Archives. On the one side was a recording I had been expecting with great anticipation: the great Josef Hofmann performing the Beethoven 'Emperor' Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s, at that time only available on a multi-disc set available from the orchestra. The other side of the cassette had a live recording made in 1991 of Rachmaninoff's Second Sonata played by a pianist unknown to me called Joseph Villa. I had never connected with that work and had never heard of the pianist, and I naturally thought it must be interesting playing if Gregor had seen fit to include it on this cassette. I had no idea what I was getting into.

I listened to the tape, and didn't quite know what to make of the music - but it became clear as I listened that this was some stupendous playing. I found myself unable to multi-task as I listened, as the playing was so magnetic, intense, and intoxicating that I could barely grasp what was happening, but I knew that it was something extraordinary.

The faded, muddled recording had been made by one Ray Edwards, who was then manager of the big Tower Records classical section in New York, at a concert held on a barge off the Brooklyn Bridge. He had had the foresight to set up a microphone with a Walkman and captured a performance that might have disappeared into the ethers. Instead it opened up the world of a pianist who might have continued to be even more unknown to the musical world than he already was.

I listened dozens of times to the tape, poring over nuances that seemed impossible to achieve by hand. I was reminded of Dinu Lipatti's incredible glissandi in 'Alborada del Gracioso'...there were technical feats in this live Villa performance that made the hair on my neck stand on end. He could hold a melodic note as a flurry of other notes cascaded downwards, and a few moments later tie that note over to the last note in that flurry without breaking the line of the melody or the filigree passagework (5:49 to 5:52 in the first movement). Like Lipatti, he was capable of phrasing a note so that it fit into the accompaniment *and* the main melodic line, so that you could hear its dual function (4:06 to 4:09, among others). He could highlight the palpable difference in vibration between different chords, and handled harmonic shifts with uncanny timing and nuancing (3:46 to 4:02 in the first movement). His accenting was phenomenal, with an ability to give a subito that did not break the line (7:20). He not only had a comprehensive architectural overview of the work, but had technique to achieve what seemed impossible and yet which might easily go unrecognized by the listener (the descending 6-note motif is consistently voiced throughout the work). And then there is that volcanic sound, only just discernable through the distortion of the amateur recording.

I excitedly called up Gregor, who raved about Joseph's playing, stating that he was one of the greatest Liszt pianists ever and was languishing without a career, despite the adoration of luminaries like Alicia de Laroccha and Jessye Norman. I couldn't understand how such an incredible musician could be unknown.

Within a year I would pay a visit to New York, and Gregor arranged for me to meet Joseph. We talked a lot about interpretation and performance, and about this incredible Rachmaninoff Second Sonata. He had learned the work for a concert for Bargemusic, an organization that presented small concerts - a stupid move, he said, since the work was fiendishly difficult and he was only going to play it three times. He had also researched the various editions of the work and sought to find the best approach to the work, eventually arriving at the same conclusions as Horowitz, and hoped that people wouldn't think he just copied Horowitz because he hadn't.

We talked about many pianists and saw eye-to-eye (or heard ear-to-ear?) on all the greats. We had a moment listening to Lipatti where I became aware of his ear for detail. There is one spot in the live recording of Chopin's First Concerto where Lipatti accents the second beat in a bar featuring a massive run of notes, an unusual effect; we were listening to this passage, and immediately after that nuance, Villa turned to me and said "Ooooh, niiiice...". No one I had played this recording for had ever pointed out that particular effect that Lipatti achieved.

Villa's playing was full of that attention to detail, but was more wildly passionate than Lipatti's highly controlled approach. He had a combination of Lipatti's architectural overview, Hofmann's explosiveness, Friedman's singing line...the comparisons could go on, but essentially he was unique.

I had the opportunity to hear Joseph at the Bargemusic concert being held shortly after we met - unfortunately he played no solo music, only chamber music. His playing was of course wonderful but the chamber music did not provide the full opportunity for his titanic pianism to shine. This had been the same Barge where that incredible concert had taken place. How I wished I could have traveled back in time...

Joseph died a few years later, on April 13th, 1995, at the age of 46 (New York Times Obituary). Stephen Hough wrote a beautiful tribute to him on his website. A number of live recordings survive and plans are underway for a compilation of his best performances. Stay tuned for more details.

In the meantime, a copy of the Rachmaninoff Second Sonata can be found on youtube (thanks to whoever put it there!) - it is audio only, as there is no video of this performance. I am warning you - it is not for the faint of heart: it is an intense piece of music and the performance is of incredibly raw emotional expressiveness and probing musical depth, and the sound is not ideal, but it is eminently worth examining if you are a fan of the piano. Of the thousands of hours of piano recordings that I possess, this is one of the few amazes me time and time again. It is supreme playing of a musician of the highest order, and I consider this to be one of the greatest piano recordings ever made.

First movement

Second movement

Third movement