Schubert’s Impromptu in G-Flat Major

Today is the anniversary of Dinu Lipatti’s legendary final recital at the Besançon International Music Festival on September 16, 1950, so it seems a fine time to publish and discuss one of the pianist’s magnificent performances from that concert: the Schubert Impromptu in G-Flat Major D.899 No.3.

EMI first issued Lipatti’s performance of the two Schubert Impromptus that he played at the recital on a 5-LP French Columbia set in 1955 and then the complete recital in 1957, first on both French Columbia and Angel Records (in the US); when the performance received such universal acclaim (unanticipated by EMI management, who had resisted issuing the complete recording), it was released worldwide. Particularly noted was the fact that Lipatti played warm-up arpeggios (preluding) prior to the Bach and Mozart works in the program; however, EMI never released (for reasons completely unknown) Lipatti’s preluding prior to the Schubert Impromptus or the Chopin Waltzes, despite these having been recorded and existing on the Radiodiffusion Française broadcast recording in EMI’s archive.

RDF SchubertPresented in this YouTube clip is the applause and preluding prior to Lipatti’s performance of the G-Flat Major Impromptu, followed by the performance of the work as issued. It should be noted, however, that the performance as broadcast and released is not exactly how Lipatti played it: there is a sudden edit with several bars missing from the broadcast tape, and in 2015 the reason why became clear when my colleague Werner Unger and I located and transferred an original Radiodiffusion Française transcription disc of this sole work from the recital.

On this original disc we can hear Lipatti hit a wrong note in the left hand, which for some reason was edited out of the broadcast performance by cutting out several measures of music (it took place during a repeated musical subject). Because EMI only had access to the broadcast tape and not the unedited transcription disc, they took the same music from a later part of the score and edited it seamlessly into the performance – the complete as-played performance has still not been aired or issued in its entirety.

But here we can hear finally hear the warm applause and exquisitely beautiful arpeggios that Lipatti played prior to his heartfelt reading of this marvellous work by Schubert, which he plays with a soaring melodic line, phrasing that breathes, wonderfully poised layering of voices, natural timing, and a burnished sonority that truly sings.

The photographs used in this video were taken by Besançon-based photographer Michel Meusy during the recital and are presented with permission of his family.

Liszt’s First Piano Concerto

Dinu Lipatti recorded only two piano concertos for EMI – the Grieg and Schumann Concertos, both in A Minor, and both mainstays of the repertoire. While the Grieg has its more virtuosic side, somehow Lipatti’s lyricism and musicality have overshadowed his more stunning technical feats in this performance, leaving pianophiles with the impression that he wasn’t the kind of pianist who could play real showpieces. In the digital age and through this blog and other publications it is becoming more known that Lipatti played 23 works for piano and orchestra of all kinds. One of the works that figured in his repertoire for the longest was Liszt’s First Piano Concerto.

Lipatti first played the work in 1933 in Bucharest, and famously performed it with Mengelberg a decade later. Apparently when Lipatti came on the stage for the first rehearsal, Mengelberg said “Das ist kein Liszt-spieler” (“That is no Liszt pianist”) – but once the pianist started playing, the conductor soon revised his assessment. Despite his rather slight appearance, Lipatti had strength in spades, and even though his approach to playing was always musical, he was capable of fireworks.

The last time that Lipatti played the work was on June 6, 1947 in Geneva, with the Radio Suisse Romande orchestra conducted by Ernest Ansermet, at a charity concert for the Red Cross. It came to my attention in 1991 that this performance had been recorded and preserved on a set of acetates owned by Lipatti’s widow. I could not fathom at the time – nor can I still – why she possessed this recording yet seems to have made no effort to have it issued: there is not a shred of correspondence relating to its existence in EMI’s archive. Nevertheless, along with other private recordings, these discs found their way into the hands of Dr. Marc Gertsch, a Lipatti fan in Bern who had come to the rescue of Mrs. Lipatti when the Chopin Concerto scandal had erupted (Gertsch had a recording of an authentic performance and let EMI use it once it was discovered that the recording they had released was not of Lipatti). After Mrs Lipatti died in the early 1980s, Gertsch was allowed to go into her collection and take the records he wanted; he did not take them all at once, and when he returned, those he had left were gone… meaning that there are potentially more private recordings that exist in private hands.

The copies of the Liszt Concerto were well worn, having been played multiple times, and the first record was cracked. While there was a backup reel tape, the sound was not very good on it. My colleague Werner Unger of the archiphon record label met with Gertsch in 1992 and took the recordings to remaster them. He spent hours and hours declicking and splicing the first record into an accurate representation of the performance (having heard the unedited transfer of the disc, with the needle jumping and skipping, I am in utter amazement at how he managed). We released the performance for the first time on archiphon’s ‘Les Inedits’ box set release, which featured other unissued Lipatti performances from Gertsch’s collection. Alas, some of the final mastering by one of Unger’s colleagues removed some of the full-bodied sound that had previously been present in the Liszt.

In 2000, Unger and I were in discussion about Lipatti matters and I suggested he ask EMI what they had prepared for the 50th anniversary of Lipatti’s death so that we could release our own commemorative CD. When it became evident that they had completely missed the occasion and not planned to issue anything, they asked us what we had that they could use, and I proposed the Bach-Busoni, Liszt, and Bartok Third Concertos as a single disc. The CD was eventually issued in early 2001, so this glowing performance of Liszt’s First Concerto is now part of Lipatti’s official discography. (I offered to write the booklet notes for the CD but was told that one of their regular writers would do so, and they thanked me for my interest in their project.) Alas, EMI also continued to fiddle with the engineering after we’d approved of one fine transfer, further compressing and deadening the sound.

Regardless of sonic restrictions, the performance reveals some staggering playing on Lipatti’s part, displaying his unique synthesis of thorough technical command and profound, poised musicality. He has a massive dynamic range (recent digital transfers of the Grieg Concerto give a better idea) and plays with peaked phrasing, crisply defined articulation, dramatic emphasis, and elegant rubato. His tempi would be considered spacious by modern standards: in 1930s Paris, he heard Liszt’s pupil Emil von Sauer play both concertos and was impressed with his slower tempi and refined approach. In the third movement, Lipatti achieves the remarkable ‘bounce’ heard on his legendary disc of Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso, and the cadenza in that movement (starting around 13:07 on the YouTube clip below) is the most convincing I’ve heard: he slows down and plays with a rumbling bass, arching the phrasing of the melody in a truly sinister fashion that seems so natural and obvious that I can’t understand why other pianists haven’t considered this approach.

Lipatti played the Chopin Andante Spianato and Polonaise at the same concert but a recording of that performance has not been found. It is to be hoped that it is among those that went missing from Mrs Lipatti’s collection and will one day be recovered. But fortunately we now have this amazing performance of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto readily available on CD, at iTunes, and on YouTube for all to enjoy.

Dinu Lipatti’s Final Essay – On Interpretation

Below is a draft from May 1950 of a presentation for an Interpretation Course to be held at the Conservatoire de Geneve. Lipatti had planned to give the course with Nadia Boulanger in the Spring of 1951. The text below was found in his papers after his death, and gives a good glimpse of his views towards interpretation.

It is unjustly believed that the music from one era or another must preserve the imprint, the characteristics, and even the vices prevalent at the time this music was created. In thinking this way we have a peaceful conscience and find ourselves incapable of any dangerous misrepresentation. And to reach this objective, for all the effort, for all the research done in the dust of the past, for all the useless scrupulousness towards the ‘sole object of our attention,’ we will always end up drowning it in an abundance of prejudices and false facts. For, let us never forget, true and great music transcends its time and, even more, never corresponded to the framework, forms, and rules in place at the time of its creation: Bach in his work for organ calls for the electric organ and its unlimited means, Mozart asks for the pianoforte and distances himself decisively from the harpsichord, Beethoven demands our modern piano, which Chopin – having it – first gives its colors, while Debussy goes further in presenting through his Preludes glimpses of Martenot’s Wave [i]. Therefore, wanting to restore to music its historical framework is like dressing an adult in an adolescent’s clothes. This might have a certain charm in the context of a historical reconstruction, yet is of no interest to those other than lovers of dead leaves or the collectors of old pipes.

These reflections came to me while recalling the astonishment that I caused some time ago when I played, at a prominent European music festival [ii], Mozart’s D minor Concerto [K. 466] with the magnificent and stunning cadenza that Beethoven made for this work. True, we could sense that the same themes appear differently under Beethoven’s pen than under that of Mozart. But this is exactly wherein lies the appeal of this interesting confrontation between two such different personalities. I regret to say that other than a few enlightened spirits, nobody understood this marriage and everyone suspected that I had composed this vile and anachronistic cadenza!

How right Stravinsky is in affirming that ‘Music is the present’!

Music has to live under our fingers, under our eyes, in our hearts and in our brains with all that we, the living, can offer it.

Far be it for me to promote anarchy and disdain for the fundamental laws which guide, along general lines, the coordination of a valid and pertinent interpretation. But I find it a grave mistake to lose oneself in researching useless details regarding the way in which Mozart would have played a certain trill or grupetto. As for myself, the diverse markings provided by excellent yet incomplete treatises compel me to decisively take the path to simplification and synthesis while immutably preserving some four or five fundamental principles of which I think you are aware (or at least, I suppose you are), and for the rest I rely on intuition, that second but no-less-precious intelligence, and to in-depth penetration of the work, which, sooner or later, ends up confessing the secret of its soul.

Never approach a score with eyes of the dead or the past, for they may bring you nothing more in return than Yorick’s skull [iii]. Alfredo Casella rightly said that we must not be satisfied with merely respecting masterpieces, but we must love them.

This translation © Mark Ainley 2003

End notes

i. An invention by Maurice Martenot (1898-1980) based on his discovery that the recently invented radio tubes produced a certain ‘purity of vibrations’. He presented his unique instrument at the Paris Opera in 1928 (he had started his research in 1919) and a number of composers, particularly French, wrote works for it.

ii. Lipatti performed the Mozart D Minor Concerto at the Lucerne Music Festival on August 23, 1947, with Paul Hindemith conducting.

iii. This refers to the scene in ‘Hamlet’ where the protagonist finds the skull of his favourite clown from his childhood. Lipatti is most likely stressing that in searching for the exact style of interpretation in the past, we may end up with something that once contained life but no longer does.

The Bach-Busoni D Minor Concerto

Dinu Lipatti is justly celebrated for his performances of Bach. He had a seemingly unique capacity to vary the attack used by different fingers even within the same hand so that the voicing of each line was thoroughly consistent. Contrapuntal parts therefore sounded as though they were being played by different instruments, each line sounding like an individual voice with its own unique timbre, together highlighting the structure of the score in stunning detail while infusing it with warmth and life.

Lipatti himself spoke to Bach’s music being the closest to his heart, and it is most unfortunate that he did not record more than his miraculous take of the B-Flat Partita and four transcriptions. He was in fact scheduled to commit to disc four Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier at the Geneva sessions in July 1950 that produced the aforementioned recordings, but he sent the engineers home two days early, ostensibly because he wanted to give the EMI technicians a break, but most likely because he himself was exhausted from the ordeal of 10 days of recording as the temporary effects of the cortisone being used to treat his Hodgkin’s Disease started to fade.

There are few fans of Lipatti’s playing who would not wish for more recordings of him playing Bach, and there have been tantalizing leads. A rather disturbing one is the story that Lipatti’s biographer Grigore Bargauanu was at a Swiss radio station where the card catalogue showed that a studio-made disc of a Prelude and Fugue was in the collection, but when he and the archivist went to get it, it was missing from the stacks.

In 1973, Opus Records released an LP of Lipatti performing the Bach D Minor Concerto with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Eduard van Beinum on October 2, 1947. The flip-side of the disc was Lipatti’s 1937 recording with Nadia Boulanger and her troupe of singers of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes Op.52, which had never been issued in LP format by EMI. No notes indicated the provenance of the live recording.

Opus label releases were produced by the International Piano Archives, which was run by Gregor Benko, who informed me that he had obtained the tape of the performance in an exchange with a Swiss collector by the name of Marc Fleury. At the time that they traded tapes (though the Bach was originally recorded on acetates), Benko was unaware of the fact that Lipatti had played the Ravel G Major Concerto at the same concert (Lipatti had in fact played the same program on both October 1 and 2). He lost touch with Fleury and so it is unknown if the Ravel performance also survived in his collection – the prospect of that recording existing, given Lipatti’s exceptional commercial disc of Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso, is an exciting one. Despite the Dutch radio archives having a remarkable collection of their concert history preserved on disc, even the Bach seems not to exist in their collection.

The Bach Concerto recording itself is one of the most unusual Lipatti recordings to have surfaced, as it reveals aspects of Lipatti’s artistry that are inconsistent with how he is usually perceived. Lipatti is often held up as a pianist who held the score as sacrosanct, despite the fact that he made changes to the score in his Alborada disc and his concert performance of Schubert’s E-Flat Impromptu. He himself stated that fidelity to the Urspirit of a score, as opposed to the Urtext, was his priority: “Far be it for me to promote anarchy and disdain for the fundamental laws which guide, along general lines, the coordination of a valid and pertinent interpretation,” he wrote in notes for a planned Interpretation course to be co-presented with Nadia Boulanger. “But I find it a grave mistake to lose oneself in researching useless details regarding the way in which Mozart would have played a certain trill or grupetto…wanting to restore to music its historical framework is like dressing an adult in an adolescent’s clothes. This might have a certain charm in the context of a historical reconstruction, yet is of no interest to those other than lovers of dead leaves or the collectors of old pipes.”

His approach to the D Minor Concerto is so radically unconventional that it paints Lipatti as more of a firebrand than his somewhat staid reputation as a literalist and pianist of ‘purity’ might indicate. Lipatti uses some of the variants in Busoni’s edition of the concerto, among them passages where arpeggios occupy two octaves instead of one (or answer in a higher octave a statement in a lower one) and bass register notes are played lower than Bach wrote them. Lipatti’s rhythm is remarkably steady and his accenting pronounced, though the emphasis never breaks the line. His articulation is varied, he is more liberal with the pedal and the highlighting of left-hand figurations, and he makes some rather dramatic ritardandos.

The first movement is among the most fascinating performances that exist by Lipatti, with a number of passages in particular demonstrating his unusual conception of this work. The section from 5:22 to 5:44, where arpeggios are extended and played with the most delightful inner rhythmic pulse, is magnificent. Perhaps the most incredible moment begins at 6:39, where he starts a phenomenally graduated decrescendo that brings the audience to complete silence as he highlights a downward chromatic progression, creating a melting effect until his playing goes down to a whisper at 7:02 – miraculous.

This concert recording captures Lipatti’s playing at its peak (he was in relatively good health) and it is an important part of his discography. Despite its early appearance on IPA’s Opus Records label and subsequent releases on Jecklin and Turnabout/Vox, EMI did not issue the recording as part of Lipatti’s official discography. They had explored the possibility in 1981 but, as they often did, shied away from negotiations with orchestras and conductors signed to other labels. Finally in the year 2000, when they had realized that they had not prepared a commemorative release for the 50th anniversary of the pianist’s death, they accepted a proposal I had initially made in 1991 to release this performance with the Liszt E-Flat and Bartok Third Concertos. The disc was issued early in 2001 and these three concerto performances are now part of Lipatti’s official EMI discography.

Let us continue to hope that the recording of the Ravel G Major Concerto will surface, as it will surely be a stunning performance that also paints a different portrait of Lipatti’s pianism and interpretative genius.

La Leggierezza

Dinu Lipatti signed his contract with the Columbia label of EMI in January 1946, and at his first session at a studio in Zurich that July he recorded three works: Chopin’s Waltz in A-Flat Op.34 No.1, Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca No.104, and Liszt’s La Leggierezza. (The exact date of the session is unknown: Lipatti wrote prior to the session that he was scheduled to make a series of recordings from July 4 to 6, but only recorded these 3 titles and so likely it took place on one of these days.) Columbia was experimenting with a new recording material, and the masters which were pressed warped while in transit to London. Engineers attempted to press the records, but they were unsalvageable. While Lipatti would once again record the Chopin Waltz – as a filler for the Grieg Concerto – and the Sonetto del Petrarca, both on September 24, 1947 at London’s Abbey Road Studio No.3, he did not make another attempt at La Leggierezza. While pitch-correcting technology could be used today to repair the damage to the 1946 recordings, no test pressings have been found and the record pressing master stampers have been destroyed. The recording sheet reproduced here lists October 15, 1946 as the date for a recording made at Abbey Road, but this is incorrect (as the handwritten note ‘Recorded in Switzerland’ indicates) and is undoubtedly the date of the attempted pressing of the disc.

Fast-forward to 1990. I was in London hoping to find more Lipatti recordings and paid a visit to the National Sound Archive, which was then located on Exhibition Road in Kensington. I searched through their card catalogue, which is what one did in the days before the internet, but there was nothing under Lipatti. I then had a hunch to search through the composers he’d performed just in case something was not properly cross-referenced – and sure enough… under Liszt, there was listed a recording on tape 101W of Dinu Lipatti playing La Leggierezza. It said that it had been recorded from a BBC broadcast by one D Steynor and obtained by the British Institute of Recorded Sound on October 21, 1958. I requested to listen to the tape, and was flabbergasted by the playing. The opening few measures were missing and there was a big pitch fluctuation near the beginning of the recording, but other than that and the somewhat restricted tonal range, one could clearly hear Lipatti’s unique pianism.

A couple of years later when I returned to London, I met with the staff to discuss the recording. As Werner Unger of archiphon records and I were formulating plans to obtain and release some lost Lipatti recordings, we wanted to discuss the possibility of obtaining a copy of the tape. The staff of the NSA were very accommodating, and we listened to the recording together. Their engineers, with their incredibly trained ears, could recognize the acoustic as being a BBC studio, whereas I had thought this might still be a broadcast of a test pressing of the unpublished EMI recording. Later research revealed that Lipatti did in fact broadcast the work from the BBC studios on September 25, 1947. The staff at the National Sound Archive said that if we could obtain permission from the BBC, they would be able to copy us the tape (we needed to show that the broadcast took place before July 1957 – something that was easy since Lipatti died in 1950). Unger handled that side of things, and the BBC were – rather surprisingly, given the stories that I’d heard – gracious not only in allowing us to have a copy of the NSA’s tape but also in consenting to its commercial release. In late 1994 we issued it on the archiphon CD set ‘Les Inédits’, its only authorized CD release to date.

The playing in this performance is phenomenal, and there are a few nuances that are particularly worth noting. Throughout the work, the bassline is remarkably clear, something that all Romantic pianists did in their playing – scores did not indicate that a line in the bass with step-wise progression should be highlighted because everyone at the time knew that it should be done. At 1:13 to 1:17, Lipatti voices the chords in the right hand such that the atonal quality of the harmonies stand out, highlighting the avant-garde nature of Liszt’s writing. In the section beginning at 2:52, as Lipatti moves from ascending to descending runs, he accelerates as he ‘goes around the corner’, so to speak, which produces a wonderfully ‘light’ effect. And then at 3:41-3:44, where every pianist that I’ve heard slows down and plays a decrescendo, Lipatti does the exact opposite, speeding up and crashing into a fortissimo in a grand, heroic gesture.

While we can lament the lack of more Liszt recordings by Lipatti – if only he’d played the Sonata! – we do have a greater idea of his approach to this great composer through the recordings that have come to light, among them an early test recording of Gnomenreigen, a 1947 concert recording of the First Concerto, and this current recording. (There will be other posts to follow on Gnomenreigen and the First Concerto.) We can keep our hopes alive that a broadcast recording of Liszt’s Second Concerto, which he played in concert many times, will one day surface. In the meantime, enjoy the one BBC broadcast of Dinu Lipatti that has come to light: the September 25, 1947 broadcast of Liszt’s La Leggierezza.