Dinu Lipatti’s Valedictory Recordings

Notes for Opus Kura’s CD release of Lipatti’s recordings made in Geneva in July 1950

Dinu Lipatti made the last of his Abbey Road recordings in London on April 21, 1948. After a May 30 performance of the Bartok Third Concerto in Germany, he became so ill that he played only a handful of concerts in the subsequent 18 months. The pianist devised a ‘less tiring program’ for his recitals – Bach B-Flat Partita, Mozart A Minor Sonata, two Schubert Impromptus, and Fourteen Chopin Waltzes – yet still continued to give heroic concerto performances: his now legendary Zurich concert of February 7, 1950 featuring the Chopin E Minor Concerto led the director of the Jecklin Pianohaus to write to EMI producer Walter Legge with a suggestion that the company record Lipatti in Switzerland. EMI had already overturned such a proposal the year before, believing that Lipatti would be well enough to make the voyage to London in November 1949 to record the Bartok Third Concerto with Karajan and the Chopin Waltzes. At Easter 1950, however, Legge assured Lipatti that he would do what he could to record the pianist close to his home.

It was not long afterwards that Lipatti would begin injections of cortisone, a new treatment that conductor Paul Sacher, whose wife was active in the pharmaceuticals industry, had heard of the previous autumn when in the United States. The cost was exorbitant – eighteen British pounds a day – but was paid for by admirers such as Sacher, Menuhin, and Stravinsky. Lipatti’s doctor informed Legge that the pianist’s condition was improving but that the injections could not continue for long. Legge arranged for a van of recording equipment to travel to Geneva after recording concerts at Casals’ Prades Festival in June. Friends placed a house at Lipatti’s disposal, and some admirers purchased him a new Steinway ‘whom no other hands have caressed’, while the Jecklin Pianohaus provided a Hamburg Steinway. A studio at Radio Geneva was procured, and after the sound checks of July 2nd, Lipatti began 9 days of sessions, from July 3 to July 12, in an intensive schedule that led to him recording on 42 kilograms of tape (25 kilometres in length). The result is about two hours of performances that were released on both 78 and LP discs: the Bach B-Flat Partita and three transcriptions, the Mozart A Minor Sonata, and Fourteen Chopin Waltzes and a Mazurka.

Lipatti’s valedictory recordings have been widely praised for their poise and equilibrium, becoming the standard by which all other performances of these works are judged. The pianist would sit in the recording van listening to playbacks with what one student described as ‘laser-like precision’ to ensure that the best possible performance would be issued. Especially remarkable is Lipatti’s stately command of Bach’s First Partita – recorded on the morning of Sunday July 9 – which demonstrates incredible rhythmic and textural clarity that allow the counterpoint and polyphony to shine through. The Bach transcriptions he plays with reverence and tranquility. ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ is particularly imbued with air of majesty: Lipatti had not been fully satisfied with the version released in 1947, and at the evening session of July 10 he finally recorded his ideal performance. Lipatti’s first and only commercial Mozart recording is the A Minor Sonata, which captures the pathos and operatic style of a composer who had also suffered ill health. The recording was made the evening of July 9, after which Lipatti made several further takes of Chopin Waltzes and as the engineers took a break, he played ‘Stormy Weather’ (which unfortunately seems not to have been recorded)!

Most of the session times were devoted to the Chopin Waltzes, and for many of them Lipatti made multiple attempts over the course of the nine days – the A-Flat Major Waltz Op.42, for example, was the subject of takes on July 3, 8, 9, and 11. While the dryer acoustic can make Lipatti’s nuances seem a touch less discreet, his taste is nevertheless, as always, reserved and elegant, a model of balance and refinement with a Romantic flavour. Lipatti wanted the waltzes to be presented in a different sequence than chronological order, as they had been composed at different times in Chopin’s life. Lipatti’s recording of the C-Sharp Minor Mazurka was used to fill the remaining side of the 78-rpm set, the pianist stating that he was tempting Legge into asking him to record the entire cycle the following year.

In retrospect, one might say that some better decisions could have been made. Despite the vibrant energy Lipatti was enjoying, he recorded the works he had originally programmed to conserve his strength –while he was so energetic he might have recorded his more taxing repertoire instead, such as the Schumann Etudes Symphoniques he had requested at his last Abbey Road session. A letter that Lipatti wrote to his friend Georges Schwob on July 12 is tantalizing in that the pianist states that he was to record 4 Bach Preludes and Fugues and 7 Scarlatti Sonatas at the July 12 and 13 sessions, and yet it appears that he did not do so; he stated in an interview two weeks later that he had sent the engineers home two days earlier than expected to help them recover from the ordeal to which he had subjected them. Lipatti also did not record the posthumous Chopin Waltz that he played as an encore at his Bern recital the previous December.

The nearly two hours of performances that Lipatti recorded in Geneva stand as a testimony to one of the greatest pianists of the century, an artist and musician of the highest order. The popularity of these performances over the past 60 years is unparalleled – they have remained consistently in the catalogue since their initial release, always critically acclaimed – and with the superlative transfers presented here, Lipatti’s exceptional pianism can now be appreciated in more full-bodied sound quality than ever before.


  • Mark Ainley

    Thanks very much – glad you like. Have some pieces for magazines coming that I can’t reproduce here, but I will add some recordings and put some more texts with them. Cheers!