Dinu Lipatti, Piano: The EMI Recordings


As with his American contemporary William Kapell, the death of Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti as a thirtysomething was, from the perspective of his legacy, both a misfortune and a boon. For, although the death of a musician at so tender an age robs us of later entries in his discography—presumably what would be the exemplars of his age-matured style—it also attaches a certain mystique to his artistic persona. Untimely death aside, the question is whether his recordings merit the legendary status to which many aficionados have elevated them. Granted, he was a refined pianist with a sleek technique. However, having relistened in full to the five discs on this set (which constitute almost his entire discography), I remain quizzical about what prompted so great an artist as Cortot to resign from the jury in protest when Lipatti placed second in the Vienna Competition. In short, I take issue with those who claim his artistry should be compared with a Rachmaninoff, Cortot, Barere—or, yes, maybe even a Kapell.

To be sure, the seamless elegance of his finger technique, which renders nary a note out of place, is admirable. It's just that most of the repertoire he plays requires more than Mendelssohnian salon polish. 

Nowhere is this truer than on the 14 Chopin waltzes, his most celebrated performance and the only complete set in his discography (minus a few of the posthumous ones). Lipatti's ultra-chaste approach might make for a pleasant car ride home after a taxing day at the office, but it rarely sparkles or takes risks to engage the more attentive ear. Nor does it capture the intriguingly offbeat rhythmic pulse of these often wayward dances. In the B minor sonata, he fares somewhat better, especially in the jeux perlé scherzo in which his impressive finger dexterity shines (similarly to his Schubert E-flat impromptu). However, his outer movements lack a recognizable conception: no fire of a Kapell, heroism of a Cortot, or abandon of a Ponti.

One might think that Lipatti's reserved temperament would be better suited to the baroque and classical masters, to whom a disc's worth of music is dedicated, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Lipatti's renditions of the Bach B-flat major partita and Mozart A minor sonata often have been praised by the critics; given the limp-wristed  performances of this music by such modern "specialists" as Murray Perahia and Andras Schiff, it's not difficult to see why. These are safe performances that go through the motions; there's little to argue with for either good or ill because hardly anything happens that's worth discussing. All the notes are correct, it's metronomically accurate, and there's no strain. At the same time, there's little to inspire greater reflection or encourage a second listen. The sonata is lacking in point and accent. And he fails to find much verve in the spiky dance rhythms of the partita, especially the courante and gigue. His phrasing in the middle movement of the A minor sonata is a particular curiosityone wonders how such a plangent line of Mozart's could be rendered so devoid of subtlety or tragedy, a thought that also occurred to me while listening to both his Bach chorale preludes and Schubert G-flat major impromptu. 

Interestingly, the only recordings in which Lipatti seems to emerge from his lethargy are the Grieg and Schumann concertos. Perhaps he was one of those artists who could only come out of his shell for a live event. Under the autocratic direction of Herbert von Karajan in the Schumann and Alceo Galliera in the Grieg, Lipatti attacks dense chordal passages with leonine intensity. In these youthfully romantic works, Lipatti seems most at home, making up for lackluster readings of the more classical Mozart C major (K. 467) and Chopin E minor concertos, both of which pale by comparison to Rosina Lhevinne's august interpretations. In the Grieg, he seems to delight in Lisztian octave displays while dispatching the many filigree passages with aplomb. While his rendition of the Schumann, particularly the third movement, may lack Cortot's virility, its boyish innocence captures the German composer's quintessential innigkeit. So strong are these two performances that they alone are a reason to listen to these discs, if only to wonder at how the same artist can struggle to find any insight in as sublime a work as Liszt's Petrarch Sonnet 104so ethereally rendered by Barere—or Ravel's bristling Spanish-flavored Alborada del gracioso, whose primitive intensity springs to life beneath Richter's great paws. Some would probably argue that Lipatti manages to find some meaning in the sonata of his Romanian countryman Georges Enescu, but I'd rather not attempt to judge, for this piece of modern cobbled-together nonsense is as ugly as the din of car horns at a city intersection.

Alas, these discs reveal how poorly Lipatti understands the German repertoire. In addition to his lackadaisical readings of Bach, Mozart, and Schubert, which sound like little more than sped-up practice sessions, he teams up with the schoolmarmish Nadia Boulanger in a four-hand performance of a selection of Brahms waltzes that's as mechanical as two droids' movements. The duo seem so preoccupied with the perfection of their ensemble that they fail to uncover even a hint of the German master's rich counterpoint or craggy rhythms.

Nonetheless, for the serious pianophile, Lipatti's Chopin interpretations merit a listen or two, if only to marvel at his seemingly flawless mechanism: light, even, crystalline. You'll never hear this kind of effortless playing from the likes of a modern "Chopinist" like Sokolov or Kissin. That quality, at least, justly garnered Cortot's praise. And it earns mine as well, despite my longing for a more individual artistic stamp on his interpretations.

Joe's Grade: B-

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