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