A Touch of Class

When Dinu Lipatti died, at just 33, the world lost a pianist of rare talent. Assisted by today’s great players, Roger Nichols admires the Romanian’s genius, with views from Matthew Schellhorn.
“Those whom the gods love,’ wrote the Ancient Greek playwright Menander, ‘die young.’ Whether or not his gods passed that habit on to those operating in the Christian era, who knows? But many musicians at least do seem to reserve a special place in their hearts for composers who left us before their time – Purcell, Schubert, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Mozart of course, all dead in their thirties. Performers may find it harder to make a lasting mark so young, but I can name two exceptions: Yehudi Menuhin, for whom an early death might have left his legacy more secure; and Dinu Lipatti, who was born on 19 March 1917 and died on 2 December 1950.

Heavenly powers smiled on Lipatti’s boyhood. His father Theodor was a violinist who had studied with Carl Flesch in Bucharest and then with Sarasate in Paris, his mother Anna was an accomplished pianist, and his godfather was violinist and composer George Enescu. At an early age Dinu clapped rhythms and imitated sounds to the delight of all, and even played on the piano a representation of a parental argument. He also composed. But his health had always been delicate and his parents waited until he was eight before letting him have piano lessons with Mihail Jora. Three years later he entered the Bucharest Royal Academy of Music to study under Florica Musicescu to whom he remained devoted until his death. From here on, progress was swift. In each of the three years 1931–33 he performed a concerto: the Grieg, the Chopin E minor, the Liszt E flat, all of which he would later record. In 1934 he entered the Vienna International Piano Competition and was placed second – to the disgust of juror Alfred Cortot who promptly resigned.

Offers of concerts flooded in, but were mostly refused. Instead Anna harboured the idea that Dinu should go to Paris. She sold their Bucharest house without Theodor’s knowledge and bought a Paris apartment. So to Paris they went and Lipatti entered the Ecole Normale de Musique, which Cortot had founded and where he taught. Paul Dukas gave Lipatti composition lessons and had a high opinion of his abilities and, when Dukas died in 1935 and his funeral coincided with a Lipatti recital, the pianist as a tribute opened with Myra Hess’s transcription of ‘Jesu, Joy’ which was to become a talismanic piece for him. For Cortot, the 18-year-old Lipatti was now no longer a student and he duly enrolled him on the school’s jury for its Diploma of Virtuosity.

Another teacher at the Ecole Normale who became a close friend was Nadia Boulanger. With his concert work now growing apace, in 1938 he recorded with her a selection of the Brahms Waltzes for piano duet. In July 1939, with war threatening, the family moved back to Bucharest, but Lipatti toured widely during the war and played in a number of German cities without, apparently, incurring blame either then or afterwards. Lovers of Ravel can only drool inwardly on reading that in a performance of Le Tombeau de Couperin the ‘Toccata’ was ‘splendidly rendered by Lipatti’s prodigious technique, and a crystal-clear and incisive playing with fine tonal range and full of brio’. Not everyone was thrilled by his interpretations. A Stockholm critic in 1943 reviled him as having ‘nothing of the thinker, no refinement of nuances nor any of the mysterious subtleties of musical expression’ and, in Chopin’s B minor Sonata, of ‘hurling himself at the keyboard and playing with the fury of a machine-gun salvo.’ But then said critic was a Vladimir Horowitz fan (of whom, more below). More positive were Lipatti’s relations with the pianist Edwin Fischer, whose playing of Schubert reduced him to tears.

The heavenly powers, however, had a terrible and, as it turned out, fatal blow in store for Lipatti. At the end of 1943, shortly after he moved to Geneva, he ran a fever, but the tests showed nothing abnormal. Concerts had to be postponed or cancelled and money was low. Then in April 1944 he was appointed as professor of the ‘Virtuosity Course’ at the Geneva Conservatoire, a post he held for five years. This gave his life stability, but Swiss musical politics (Lipatti refers in inverted commas to his ‘dear colleagues’) did their best to scupper things until the post was finalised.

The last six years of Lipatti’s life saw a battle against what was finally diagnosed as Hodgkin lymphoma, with his doctors’ warnings against over-exertion on one side, and Lipatti’s duty to his audiences on the other. Clearly the anticipated US tour was no longer a possibility, but at least Lipatti had the good fortune to make a friend of Arturo Toscanini. The conductor let it be known that for him Enescu was ‘Europe’s greatest musician’, and then went on to allow Lipatti the unique privilege of sitting in on his rehearsals; even if the last of these was, in Lipatti’s words, ‘a stormy one with scores thrown about, shouts, insults, threats, until we didn’t know where to hide ourselves’, he admitted to learning a great deal.

For us today, the most wonderful and exciting products of these years were his recordings, notably those made with producer Walter Legge. But even these were often stressful, his 1947 recording of the Chopin B minor Sonata being stretched over two whole days. His last recordings, made in the months before his death in Geneva, are a testament to his unflinching honesty and determination to serve the music he played. Nor, for him, was death the end. His beloved Madeleine, whom he could marry only as late as 1949 when her husband, who had refused a divorce, finally died, recorded his last words: ‘If we suffer here below, it is to prepare for ourselves a better life.’

But what of his playing? Legge pronounced two illuminating truths about Lipatti: that he was ‘the “cleanest” player I have ever worked with’; and that he was ‘unable, in showing a pupil how not to phrase, even of imitating bad taste’. If these two judgements risk making Lipatti sound antiseptic, nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly the Stockholm critic was in a minority of perhaps one in accusing him of being a machine gunner. But bland he was not – a verdict backed up by talking to a number of today’s leading players. Matthew Schellhorn says, ‘When I want access to fresh ideas, or be reminded of why I love a certain piece, I go to Lipatti’s playing’, and Stephen Hough confirms that ‘Apart from the sheer polish of Lipatti’s playing (all the perfectly-sewn seams hidden under the cloth) I love the way he is able to combine elegance with passion, and humility with a deep individuality.’

On the technical front, Lipatti was a perfectionist. Asked how he learnt the fiendish Chopin Etude in thirds, he replied, ‘Practising it an hour every day for six months’. He was not hindered by the fact that he could stretch a 12th and, when his health allowed, his octave playing evinced absolute command. On a narrower level, too, his repeated notes in Ravel’s ‘Alborada del gracioso’ are breathtaking. But much of the power and grace of his playing came from deep thinking. Steven Osborne admires his ‘remarkable way of bringing meaning to the smallest detail of the music while never losing sight of the bigger picture’. In his recording of Busoni’s arrangement of Bach’s chorale prelude Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, not only does each of the three strands have its own shape, but so does the piece as a whole, while, as Charles Owen says, he ‘allows the listener to relish all the voices without any intrusive point making’. He also makes a perfect shape of Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet 104 and likewise makes a strong musical statement out of the Grieg Concerto. Indeed, he was widely felt to have rescued from the shadows this piece, of which he said, ‘Only those players who have a superficial grasp of the work are in danger of slipping into cheap dilettantism, and to belittle it is proof of their lack of understanding’.

For Charles Owen, one of the qualities that strikes him in Lipatti’s Chopin ‘is how very “modern” he sounds. By this, I mean a real simplicity – in the best sense of the word – of style with a sound so translucent and polished with judicious, minimal rubato and a complete absence of desynchronisation between the hands... Surely Michelangelo and Pollini would not have sounded as they do without the influence of Lipatti?’ One aspect of this modernism, in the sense of a total respect for the composer’s text, came out in what a colleague remembered as ‘his holy rages against bunglers, blockheads and narcissists’. Without actually accusing Horowitz of being any of those things, he did note in a review how, in Chopin’s E major Scherzo, the pianist happily ‘forgot he was Horowitz and returned to being a simple musician’. Angela Brownridge touches on this point, remarking that ‘it’s the poetical element which I love in his playing… he was never out to prove anything, no ego to distort the music he so obviously loved… a sublime pianist that I never tire of listening to’.

It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that his collaborations with Herbert von Karajan had their awkward moments. Although their recording of the Schumann Concerto is rightly admired, Lipatti complained in a letter to Floria Musicescu of the ‘remarkable but superclassical conductor who, instead of helping my timid romantic élan, put a brake on my good intentions.’ As for their 1950 recording of Mozart’s Concerto, K467, here indeed is little ‘refinement of nuances’, though perhaps Lipatti’s ill health should take some of the blame. He, however, would make no such excuses. In an attitude that takes us back again to the Ancient Greeks, who understood the concept of pathei mathos (learning through suffering), he claimed that his illness had taught him to play better.

The Chopin Barcarolle, two recordings of the Waltzes, ‘Jesu, Joy’, Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and… Not enough really for a man whom Steven Osborne calls ‘one of the supreme musicians among pianists’. But let’s be grateful for what we have, and savour Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s heartfelt exclamation: ‘Mon Dieu, qu’il jouait bien!’

This interview first appeared in the February 2017 issue of BBC Music Magazine
Post 1 / 1