Commentary Magazine

Saving Lipatti

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.

Fortunately, the English record producer Walter Legge made a heroic effort to document Lipatti's playing before it was too late, first in the London studios of HMV and later at a radio station near the pianist's home in Switzerland. Though Lipatti left behind not quite four hours' worth of studio recordings, most of them done between 1947 and 1950 (as well as several radio broadcasts later released on LP and CD), these were sufficient to secure his reputation as one of the 20th century's foremost pianists, and the first to be known primarily for his recordings instead of his concerts.

For all of his posthumous renown, few of Lipatti's admirers know anything about his life beyond the sketchy accounts included in the liner notes to his recordings. It is not generally appreciated, for instance, that he was also a composer whose small but beautifully crafted body of work was full of promise. Nor does the English-language literature on Lipatti contain a candid discussion of his conduct in World War II, or of his decision to emigrate to Switzerland shortly before Romania was occupied by the Soviet Union.

Above all, there has been no adequate consideration of Lipatti's place in the evolution of modern classical-music performance practice. Thanks to the dramatic story of his illness and death, he is remembered not as a historical figure but as a near-mythic one who made some of the most beautiful piano recordings of the century. Yet these recordings, powerfully compelling though they were and are, do not exist in a cultural vacuum. To the contrary, they were made by a profoundly self-aware artist who was in every sense a man of his time.


Lipatti's emergence as a world-class modern musician was all the more surprising in light of the fact that he was born into a provincial classical-music culture. The violinist-composer George Enescu (1881-1955), his godfather and teacher, was the first Romanian musician to become widely known in Western Europe, and the only one before Lipatti to have a major career. Lipatti's parents, however, were both serious amateur musicians—his father, a career diplomat, had studied violin with Pablo de Sarasate and Carl Flesch—and no sooner did his own youthful talent become apparent than they encouraged him to cultivate it.

He started improvising at the piano as a small child ( Lipatti's mother, a competent pianist, later told Walter Legge that “he could play the piano before he had learned to smile”) and performed in public for the first time at the age of six. Five years later he became a full-time student at Bucharest's Royal Academy of Music, graduating in 1932. The following year he took part in the International Piano Competition in Vienna, whose jury included such distinguished artists as the pianists Wilhelm Backhaus and Alfred Cortot and the conductors Clemens Krauss and Felix Weingartner. Cortot resigned from the jury in protest when the other jurors denied Lipatti the first prize only because of his youth.

In 1934, Lipatti and his family moved to Paris, where he studied piano with Cortot and composition with Nadia Boulanger. He made his Paris debut the following February, and from then on was acknowledged as a musical master in the making.

Had Lipatti been a less remarkable pianist, it is possible that he would have won much wider recognition as a composer. At first he was heavily influenced by Enescu, one of the post-romantic modernists who, like Béla Bartók in Hungary and Ralph Vaughan Williams in England, believed that folk music could serve as the basis for a distinctively national style of classical composition. Then Boulanger introduced him to the Bach-based neoclassical modernism of Igor Stravinsky. Out of these two contrasting approaches, he forged a style that owed much to Enescu (and, later, Bartók) but was becoming increasingly personal in the handful of large-scale works he completed in the 40's, which Boulanger rightly saw as “proof of a real creative gift.”

Not only was Lipatti a promising composer, but he could easily have made a name for himself as a critic. This he proved in a series of reviews published in 1939, the most provocative of which is an account of a Paris recital by Vladimir Horowitz:

So long as he was guided by his instinct as a musician, and by the sensitivity of his youth, Horowitz remained above criticism. Today, however, perhaps influenced by his relationship with [the conductor Arturo] Toscanini, he is trying to explore the works he is performing to make them interesting. In fact, he is trying to transform them. . . . Horowitz will be the most extraordinary pianist of all times the day he is content to accept himself as he is.

But, amazingly varied as were his gifts, in the end it was the piano that meant most to Lipatti. After 1939, he wrote nothing more for publication, and completed only four large-scale musical compositions (as well as two groups of art songs). When Boulanger warned him that he needed to devote more time to composition, he replied, “I know this very well, but I cannot tear myself away from the piano. If you only knew how much I love ‘him.’ ”


By then Lipatti was on the verge of launching an international career. Instead, he returned to Romania in the summer of 1939, not long before war broke out. The best-known version of what happened next comes from Walter Legge, who notes that Lipatti stayed in Romania until 1943,

when, together with his fiancée Madeleine Cantacuzeno, he escaped from Bucharest, and by devious ruses and routes they arrived, via Stockholm, in Geneva with a joint capital of five Swiss francs.

All this is true—so far as it goes. But Legge fails to mention that, starting in 1941, Lipatti gave concerts in Germany, Italy, Austria, and other Nazi-controlled countries.
4 These appearances were not isolated events. Between 1941 and 1943, Lipatti had performed throughout the Axis (of which Romania was a part), and nowhere in the excerpts from his correspondence included in the English-language edition of his biography does he voice any doubts about the propriety of having done so.

Legge's misrepresentation of Lipatti's wartime activities was almost certainly deliberate. The producer was notoriously indifferent to the equivocal political histories of such German and Austrian musicians as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, whom he made a point of recording for HMV after the war. Indeed, Legge went so far as to marry the German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who had joined the Nazi party as a teenager. It would have been in character for him to cover up the awkward fact that another of his “discoveries” had played for Nazi audiences during the first part of the war.

As for whether Lipatti himself had any Nazi sympathies, this cannot be determined from the documents published in English. It should be noted, however, that not only did he settle in neutral Switzerland in 1943, but he was later befriended by such impeccably anti-Nazi émigrés as Artur Schnabel and Arturo Toscanini, who would have shunned him had they suspected him of being an outright Nazi collaborator (as the Frenchman Cortot had been). It seems at least as likely that, as he would claim in a 1947 letter to a Romanian friend, “I have never been mixed up in any kind of politics,” and it appears that he remained in Switzerland after the war in order to avoid becoming entangled with Romania's newly installed Communist regime.


Whatever the truth of the matter, it is indisputable that Legge first heard about Lipatti from Francis Poulenc in Paris in 1944. Though the pianist had cut a few records with Boulanger for French HMV in 1937, his only recordings since that time had been made in Berlin, Bucharest, and Geneva, and were unknown elsewhere.
5 After hearing him play the Chopin E Minor Concerto, Legge signed Lipatti to a contract with HMV, and began recording him in 1946.

Recording made it possible for Lipatti to indulge to the fullest his perfectionism. “I do not want to give any more concerts—except as rehearsals for recording,” he told Legge. “Let us give our lives to making records together.” Alas, his recorded repertory was restricted by his fast-failing health, as well as (one suspects) by his producer's near-complete lack of interest in modern music. Only one 20th-century piece, a breathtakingly virtuosic 1948 version of Ravel's Alborada del gracioso, was released by HMV. What survives is a small but representative group of works by the composers whose music he played most frequently in concert after the war: Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Liszt, and Chopin.


The salient quality of these performances has been well described by Legge in his remarks about Lipatti's legendary 1950 recording of his signature encore, Dame Myra Hess's transcription for solo piano of Bach's “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring”:

It is impossible to explain, to those who have not experienced the wonder of his playing of this piece, its rapt beauty and fascination. It was always the first encore he played, and for him it was a prayer and utterance of thanksgiving to God. The sound was not of this world, it hovered in space like some celestial blessing.

For once, what may seem poetic license is only the simple truth: Lipatti's performance of Bach's limpid meditation on a Lutheran chorale is a miracle of lucidity and balance. From Cortot, the greatest of French pianists, he had learned the secret of playing with a lambent yet full-bodied tone, and no matter how often one listens to his recording, to hear the familiar melody singing out through the serenely flowing triplets of the accompaniment is to be entranced anew.

Just as characteristic is his similarly celebrated 1948 recording of Chopin's Barcarolle, Op. 60. Unlike “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring,” the Barcarolle was recorded by several major romantic-era pianists, including Cortot, Horowitz, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Vladimir de Pachmann, and Arthur Rubinstein, all of whom employ the freely flexible rubato heard in the recordings of classical musicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To be sure, each rubato is distinctive: Cortot colors the essentially steady flow of his playing with engagingly impulsive fluctuations of tempo, whereas Horowitz tinkers with the underlying rhythmic pulse so much as to make it hard to follow. Nevertheless, all five pianists vary the pulse at will for expressive purposes, often to a degree that many of today's listeners would find obtrusive, even tasteless.

Lipatti's rubato, by contrast, is less explicit, consisting in the main of a discreet ebb and flow that he uses with great subtlety to sculpt Chopin's phrases. The pulse is always clear and coherent, thus creating the illusion of a single, unified arc of rhythm that sweeps the listener through the piece. This gives his interpretation a cumulative force that is absent from less rhythmically unified performances, and prepares the way for a climactic peroration that is appropriately grand but in no way grandiose.


After hearing Lipatti play a Chopin concerto, Toscanini told him, “At last we have a Chopin without caprices and with the rubato to my liking.” Yet, though he had studied with Boulanger and played the music of Bartók and Stravinsky, Lipatti was not a “modern” pianist in the ordinary sense of the word.

7 While his rubato was much less capricious than Cortot's, it was free enough to make him ill at ease with the stricter, Toscanini-like style of the young Herbert von Karajan, with whom he recorded the Schumann Piano Concerto in 1948. “I did not count on an unexpected factor, a remarkable but superclassical conductor who, instead of helping my timid romantic élan, put a brake on my good intentions,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. Nor was Lipatti a rigid textual literalist. As he explained in an unpublished note written shortly before his death:

Far from me is the thought of rendering predictable the anarchy and disdain for the primary laws which guide, along general lines, the coordination of any valid and just interpretation. But I find that one would commit a grave mistake by searching for useless details regarding the way in which Mozart might have played a certain trill or gruppetto. . . . Never approach a score with dead eyes or the spirit of the past because you might find yourselves only with Yorick's skull.

Thus it is perhaps more accurate to think of Lipatti's playing as a synthesis, a kind of halfway house between the golden-age romanticism of older pianists like Cortot and the cooler, more restrained neoclassicism of the 20's and 30's. Indeed, one might almost be tempted to call him a transitional figure were his playing not so fully realized on its own distinctively individual terms. The impassioned lyricism of his 1947 broadcast of Bartók's Third Concerto suggests that his way with 20th-century music would have been no less convincing than his playing of Mozart and Chopin.


But it was not to be. Though cortisone suppressed the symptoms of Lipatti's illness long enough for him to record in Geneva in July 1950 and to play a Mozart concerto with Karajan the following month at the Lucerne Festival, his condition thereafter deteriorated with shocking speed. In mid-September he gave a solo recital at the Besançon Festival in France, by which time he was so sick that he was unable to play the last of the Chopin waltzes he had programmed and had to substitute the less technically demanding “Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.”
8 Ten weeks later he was dead, having spent the last hour of his life listening to a radio broadcast of Beethoven's F Minor String Quartet. “You see,” he told his wife, “it is not enough to be a great composer. To write music like that you must be a chosen instrument of God.”

Much of what has been said about Lipatti since then is but an echo of what the grieving Walter Legge wrote about him in 1951:

Dinu Lipatti had the qualities of a saint. The spiritual goodness of his nature, his modesty, his gentleness, his will's firm purpose, his nobility and loftiness of thought and action communicated themselves to all who met him, and to the remotest listeners in the halls where he played. His goodness and generosity evoked faith, hope, and charity in those around him.

No doubt this, too, is true—most of his friends and colleagues said more or less the same things about him. But it is not necessary to ascribe sainthood to Dinu Lipatti in order to marvel at the poetry of his playing. Had he not made records, it is unlikely that such fervent paeans to his artistry would have been taken seriously by later generations. Instead, we can hear for ourselves, and know that his untimely death robbed the world of a supremely great artist. Though he was no Franz Schubert, one can only recall the epitaph written by a friend of that great and short-lived composer: “The art of music has here entombed a rich possession, but far fairer hopes.”



1 All of Lipatti's postwar studio recordings are available on five CD's. EMI Classics 66596 has works by Chopin, including the complete waltzes, the Barcarolle, and a nocturne and mazurka. EMI Classics 67003 offers Bach's B Flat Partita, Mozart's A Minor Sonata, two Scarlatti sonatas, and four Bach transcriptions (plus a 1950 broadcast of two Schubert impromptus). EMI Classics 67567 presents Chopin's B Minor Sonata, Liszt's Sonetto del Petrarca 104 and Ravel's Alborada del gracioso. EMI Classics 67775 contains the Schumann Piano Concerto, accompanied by Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra (plus a 1950 broadcast of the Mozart C Major Concerto conducted by Karajan). EMI Classics 74802 has the Grieg Piano Concerto, accompanied by Alceo Galliera and the Philharmonia (plus a 1950 broadcast of the Chopin E Minor Concerto). Except as indicated, these CD's include all of the pieces mentioned in this article.

2 The only book-length study that has appeared in English to date is Lipatti (1971), by Dragos Tanasescu and Grigore Bargauanu, two Romanian musicologists. Not surprisingly, their discussion of the pianist's relations with the governments of Nazi Germany and postwar Romania is guarded to the point of euphemism.

3 In 1943 Lipatti recorded his own Concertino in Classic Style (1936), an attractive but derivative neoclassical exercise à la Boulanger, and a Sonatina for Left Hand (1941) in which he made highly original use of a compositional language derived from Bartók's third-period style. These performances, along with contemporary studio recordings with Enescu of the violinist's Second and Third Sonatas, are part of Enescu si Lipatti Interpreteaza Enescu si Lipatti (Electrecord EDC 430/431, two CD's), a Romanian import available through Most of Lipatti's other works have been recorded by Romanian artists, but none is currently available on CD.

4 Desmond Shawe-Taylor's entry on Lipatti in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians is similarly unforthcoming.

5 In 1937 Lipatti and Boulanger recorded seven Brahms waltzes for piano duet and the accompaniments to the Liebeslieder Walzer, Op. 52 (Pearl GEMM CD 9994). In addition to the wartime performances reissued on Enescu si Lipatti Interpreteaza Enescu si Lipatti, he also recorded Enescu's Third Piano Sonata (this performance is included on EMI Classics 67567).

6 EMI has also released a CD containing radio broadcasts by Lipatti of the Bach D Minor Concerto (played in the piano arrangement of Ferruccio Busóni), the Liszt E Flat Concerto, and Bartók's Third Concerto (EMI Classics 67572). Illness prevented him from recording Beethoven's “Waldstein” Sonata and Schumann's Symphonic Etudes, both of which figured prominently in his recital programs. (Lipatti played the “Waldstein” Sonata for the BBC, but no tape is known to exist.)

7 In his broadcasts Lipatti can occasionally be heard improvising brief preludes to the pieces he is playing, a 19th-century practice that also characterizes the live recordings of such turn-of-the-century pianists as Josef Hofmann.

8 This recital was broadcast, and an aircheck of the performance, originally released on LP in 1957, is now available on CD (EMI Classics 62820).


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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