Sunday, December 21, 2008

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

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