March 19, 2017

Today marks 100 years since the birth of Dinu Lipatti

The Romanian pianist whose life was tragically cut short at the age of 33 nonetheless left a tremendous legacy.

March 2017 will see the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dinu Lipatti. The collection Immortal Dinu Lipatti, released to commemorate the occasion, includes his Concerto album with Herbert von Karajan, an album of works by Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Brahms and Enescu, and his Last Recital in Besançon (remastered), recorded only two and a half months before his tragic death in 1950.

He was a child of springtime, born on 19 March. A child of wartime too: the year was 1917. War would go on to shackle his destiny, both as a man and a pianist. War caught up with him, imprisoning him first in a Romania that was cut off from the world, and then uprooting him, a man who loved nothing more than his garden in Funda, where he and Madeleine had planted trees whose shade he would never live to sit under.

He had had a straightforward, pampered childhood, with the best of parents and the best of teachers: Enescu was his godfather, and a lifelong guardian, while Florica Musicescu, whom he revered, was his only teacher. Nature had endowed him with phenomenal gifts: hands that were made for the piano, an extraordinary memory, and a Schumannesque talent for creating characterful improvisations, like a portrait painter of the keyboard.

Lipatti’s meticulousness was the counterpart of a poetic imagination that was joyous and utterly human. In 1934 he was far and away the best pianist at the Geneva competition, but was awarded only second prize. Shocked at this downgrading, Cortot immediately made him his special pupil.

Several years in Paris followed, and these proved to be the only truly unclouded ones of his life. With an almost spiritual sense of caution and devotion, he took care not to go too fast, as if he feared losing it all in the entertainment involved in any musical career. He took his time, gaining mastery, studying and maturing, unaware of how few years he would have.

After Cortot, he was the chosen pupil of Nadia Boulanger, whom he called his ‘second mother’. He studied conducting and played sonatas with Charles Munch, recently leader of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and even made a name for himself as a critic. His reports for Bucharest show a detachment and independence of thought that are rare in someone of his age, and one can see already the set of values that would rule his life. His comments on Bruno Walter and Furtwängler, Horowitz and Rubinstein, or the Budapest Quartet have a brilliant clarity, as if he were throwing a light on the subjects in hand. He could also be modest, as when he confessed quite frankly that he needed to hear the Symphony of Psalms again before commenting.

But he developed his exceptional natural gifts through sheer hard work. His slender, agile hand easily spanned a twelfth, and Alceo Galliera, another Romanian with whom Lipatti recorded concertos, still, twenty years later, talked about the equal weight that he was able to give to any one of his ten fingers. And Madeleine described how, after six months spent working solidly for an hour a day on Chopin’s Étude in thirds Op.25 No.6, he succeeded in squaring the circle: ‘a fleeting, shimmering right hand, and an impassioned, singing left – two different elements that managed to combine and yet keep their individual character’.

He went back to Romania in 1939 to give his first Bucharest recital. Events would keep him there for four long years. There he and George Enescu gave unforgettable sonata recitals, while every day, if possible, he practised with Madeleine (his ‘third ear’), first in a mood of close friendship, and then of love, but all the while he was champing at the bit.

It was only in 1943 that he was able to go to neutral Sweden to give concerts, and from there he went on to Switzerland where he was able to obtain residency (luckily Madeleine’s family was from Geneva, although she had always lived in Romania). What a liberation this was! Now he could play to his heart’s content, even if just in tiny village halls, and find an attentive and eager audience to share the music with. He came back to life.

And then he was struck down again, just when a new dawn was finally appearing, by an illness that was still unidentified, incurable, and, at this time, impossible to relieve. To cope with the pain that afflicted his arm, and radiated out from there, he drew on all his courage and stoicism. But he was powerless, physically and mentally, to deal with his general weariness. All Lipati had was his faith and his optimism, two qualities that he possessed to a quite uncanny degree.

Did he ever really feel that he belonged to this world? When Madeleine asked him what it was that drove him to compose (and he would have spent all his time composing if he hadn’t felt that he was taking something away from his principal mode of expression, the piano), he replied, ‘Well, it’s simple. I look at the sky and in the movement of the clouds I hear music.’ He was born with his ear attuned to something unheard by others, and his illness only accentuated this quality.

Everything conspired to make him a marginal figure, some exceptional, elite being, but set apart from the world, consecrated and ultimately sacrificed. His life, his illness, his spirituality (which, according to Thomas Mann, was of a piece with his illness, and the hardships and sacrifices he willingly endured), his genius, all these elements combine and find their sense in this one brilliant figure, a pianist the like of which has never been known.

And this, as all can attest, is what he was. All the 20th-century pianists who left behind a recorded legacy are, to all intents and purposes, contemporaries, and we tend to forget that Kempff and even Richter were older than Lipatti. How are we to understand the revelations that he brought us? What we expected, scarcely believing it possible, was that serene tone, that spirituality, that scorn for pure effect that gave his playing the moral purity and chaste quality of the true artist.

And then there was his ascetic devotion to a serious repertoire. Because for Lipatti, even Chopin’s waltzes, the last music that he was to programme, were serious, even solemn. He conceived of music as a challenge for communication, an opportunity, if possible, to convey purity. Before he died, he said ‘Music is a serious thing’, as if his life and work had not sufficiently made the point! Karajan, who one would not exactly describe as sentimental, wrote these astonishing words in his memory:
‘This wasn’t about the piano, this was Music, all earthly weight cast off; Music in its purest form, with the harmony that it can only be given
by someone (and in physical pain) who is already no longer quite with us.’

This is how he was, the exceptional musician. The story of the miracle that took place is well known: how, in the last July of his brief life, the cortisone having given him some respite, a genuine euphoria that could last for a fortnight, Columbia was able to send to the villa near Geneva that had been put at the Lipattis’ disposal for the summer, a recording
lorry that had just been liberated from Prades; how an entire Leviathan of cables was installed in front of the Radio Geneva studios, empty for the summer; how, in only ten days of work, and at times as if this great perfectionist was finally abandoning himself to inspiration, trusting the
moment, his fingers, and providence, Dinu Lipatti put down on wax more than he had recorded for Walter Legge in London three years before: a Bach Partita and Mozart sonata in just one day, fourteen Chopin waltzes, plus Scarlatti and a bit of Schubert, Bach chorales and even Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, which he had already recorded (and even published) ten
times, but which he always wanted to improve on, reaching for that inaccessible perfection.

Then, in August there was the Piano Concerto K467 with Karajan in Lucerne, which, thankfully, was not lost. And in September there was
the final recital in Besançon. He found the energy and endurance to rehearse in the hall, but then his strength left him and it took a superhuman effort to get himself up on stage to play. His condition was such that the live broadcast scheduled by RTF was pulled. The Besançon Recital included on this new edition of Lipatti's Warner Classics recordings benefits from a 24-bit/96kHz remastering.

The three-album collection Immortal Dinu Lipatti (1917-1950) is out now.