Of all the well-known classical musicians active in the first half of the 20th century, which one profited the most from the invention of sound recording? Virtually every one made at least a few records, and most recorded extensively and representatively. Yet even legendary figures who became closely identified with the phonograph, like the singer Enrico Caruso and the violinist Fritz Kreisler, were known mainly for their public performances, not for their records. The notion that a classical performer might become famous by playing in a recording studio rather than before live audiences was unthinkable—until Dinu Lipatti came along.
Lipatti, who died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1950 at the age of thirty-three, was acclaimed throughout the last years of his tragically brief life as a pianist of the very first rank. The composer Francis Poulenc spoke of his “divine spirituality,” while Alfred Cortot, his best-known piano teacher, described him as “a second [Vladimir] Horowitz.” Yet, outside his native Romania, Lipatti would no longer be remembered were it not for his recordings. His career was only just getting under way when World War II began, and by the time the war was over his illness had started to make it difficult for him to perform in public.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.