DINU LIPATTI – Last Recital

EMI Classics Références CDH5 65166-2
[72′ 57″] mid-price

Live recording of Lipatti’s last recital in Besacon, on 16 September 1950. Mono recording. Please see review below for programme.

by Soo Kian Hing

On first hearing this disc, I was rather taken aback by the freshness of what may be considered standard piano fare. Bach is no stranger to candidates for Associated Board piano examinations, who would usually preface their exam programme with one of either his 48’s or the Partitas. Mozart is the ubiquitous composer and I assume no living human being, short of being born deaf, has not heard one of his melodies. Schubert was another composer whose forte was in writing beautiful melodies of countless variety, notably in his songs. Chopin, being the pianist’s composer, wrote little that did not include a piano part.

So how did Lipatti do it — how did he transform this routine programme that any competent student could play any day, to a unique performance that lets the listener experience every piece anew, as if he is hearing it for the first time? The answer, I believe, is “Life”; yet this life comes from someone so close to his deathbed he practically had the Grim Reaper applauding from among the audience.

Strictly, “partita” means “variation”. Bach chose to write his 6 Partitas as baroque dance suites, each prefaced by a prelude of a different name (praeludium, sinfonia, fantasia, ouverture, praeambulum, and toccata). The six partitas appeared separately between 1729 and 1730, and were published together in 1731 under Klavierubung. Bach is known for his polyphonic style, to the point of being considered old-fashioned by his contemporaries when the trend moved toward monophony with harmonic accompaniment.

Well, anyone listening to this disc would surely thank Bach for stubbornly writing even dances in such a complex yet compelling style. Lipatti plays with an uncanny understanding of the architecture of the Partita No.1 in B flat major BWV 825. Whether it is the fanfare-like Prelude, the capricious Allemande, the gently beckoning Courante, the solemn Sarabande, the courtly Minuets, or the swirling Gigue, Lipatti’s nuances in dynamics, phrasing and expression give the listener a sense of both physical immediacy and warm intimacy; quite a different feel from the more idiosyncratic and cool Bach that many listeners may be accustomed to.

But there is no romanticising: distortion of meter, rhythm or melody would just mar this performance. His simple unembellished style and strong sense of rhythmicity lets each voice shine through, so that instead of being didactic, the Partita comes across as nothing short of dazzling.

Mozart wrote 18 piano sonatas, all in major keys, except for K310 in A minor (played here) and K457 in C minor. As such, these two sonatas are expected to be more tragic and dramatic than their happier companions. The A minor sonata was thought to be the result of turbulent emotions in Mozart’s personal life in 1778: an affair with Aloysia Weber; a reluctant departure from Mannheim; his mother’s death in Paris; and his bitterness at the vicissitudes of the freelance musician in search of success and security.

Lipatti brings out Mozart’s not-often-remarked ability to capture human emotions in music: the Piano Sonata in A minor KV310 encompasses tragedy and drama, with an intensity and pathos of epic proportions. Right from the first note of Allegro Maestoso, Lipatti weaves a tale of dignified tragedy and runaway angst, culminating with a fiery run of descending semiquavers, to end firmly in 3 minor chords. The Mozart we know so well returns in the 2nd movement, in F major, where the aria sings with an eloquence that reminds us Mozart was still primarily an operatic composer. Here, Lipatti’s ability to sing and dramatise makes the movement a lush exposition on tone colour and rich expression, at times even resembling a string quartet (bars 43-50).

The 3rd movement is a fleeting minor-key caprice, changing to major and back again, often within a single phrase; yet Lipatti does not lose the melodic line, nor does he lose the urgency of the undercurrent. After a brief reprieve in A major, the theme returns. As the melody calls from the distance in the baseline, Lipatti builds towards the climatic ending with a furious intensity that does not dissipate until the final three chords.

An “impromptu” is an instrumental composition supposedly written “in promptu” (improvised), first coined by Jan Vaclac Vorisek in his Impromptus, Op. 7 of 1822. There is, however, nothing improvisatory in Schubert’s 2 sets of impromptus (D899 and D935). Each is a structured short keyboard piece, that could have been titled Marche (D899/1), Variationen (D935/3), Minuetto (D935/2), or whatever. Yet perhaps, Schubert chose the title “Impromptus” to hint at the impetuosity and freedom with which a pianist may risk playing these pieces with.

The Impromptu in G flat major D899 No.3 was written in the style of a Lied ohne Worte (“Song Without Words”), and indeed Lipatti plays the languid melody in his own simple elegant voice, contrasting it with a busy sextuplet accompaniment in the middle register, like a white lily floating gracefully above gently rippling waters, his steady bass chords resonating the depths of the lake. The mud gets stirred up and the lake turns into a swirl of dark foreboding as the minor key creeps in first with sextuplets and then with trills in the bass, but calm returns with a reprise of the melody and Lipatti lets it float to the final gentle chord.

After the serenity of the lake, Lipatti eases into the soft opening Allegro triplets of the Impromptu in E flat major D899 No.2, written as a perpetuum mobile. Lipatti achieves the triplet runs effortlessly and gives the listener a consistently moving scenery without cluttering the landscape with heavy pedalling or overdone fingerwork. This is contrasted with the waltz-like central section, which Lipatti plays with a markedly accented and rhythmic style but not too heavily. The coda, which is essentially an extension of the central section, climaxes spectacularly in 4 bars of downward triplet runs, 6 thick staccatissimo chords, and finally a perfect cadence on the tonic minor.

Chopin’s Waltzes were written separately and the numbering only serves to indicate the order of publishing. The sequence in which they are played, then, rests on the artistic good taste of the pianist. Lipatti opens the cycle with the Grande Valse in A flat Op.42 no.5, a particular favourite of mine ever since I heard it played by Earl Wild on cassette… perhaps it is the exotic whirlwind 2-against-3 rhythm, or maybe the 7-note afterthought after the final 2 chords. In any case, it makes an appropriate opening piece with its anticipatory 8-bar trill on E flat.

Lipatti next tackles the “Minute” Waltz, the title of which up till now is still debatable as to whether it refers to 1) that the piece could be played in 1 minute flat, or 2) that “minute” refers to the petite nature of the piece. Well, Lipatti plays it at a sensible pace and clocks in at 1’35”; check out the heart-stopping cadenza right at the end.

Op.69 no.1 in A flat is subtitled “Farewell”, dedicated to Maria Wodzinska, so we know roughly what this particular piece means. Lipatti plays the famous Waltz in C sharp minor unconventionally fast but imbues the central “piu lento” section with tenderness and passion.

Op.34 no.2 in A minor begins with a bacarolle-like lament, but the thematic waltz is played with verve and spirit. Lipatti’s outstanding part-playing is again displayed in the central duet between the lamenting bass and the consoling treble. Op.70 no.3 in F minor is somehow played with a less-than-customary rubato, making the transition from F minor to A flat rather abrupt. Similarly, the next number, in D-flat, suffers from a lack of depth and the tortuous inner voice in the right hand is passed off as a mere chromatic motif.

The next waltz, Op.64 no.3 in A-flat, fares better with its relentlessly arching motif; Lipatti misses a few notes on the downward arpeggio to the last note. The last waltz on this recording is perhaps the most famous of all Chopin’s waltzes, the Grande Valse Brillante in E-flat, played with vigour and brilliance. By now Lipatti’s strain is quite imaginable. This, quite unfortunately, caused him to leave out the originally-planned closing waltz of the entire cycle, Op.34 no.1 in A-flat.

Though this 1950 recording was made in mono, the digital transfer is comparatively good and gives a satisfactory sound without much disruptive static. Though the tone may sound rather brittle and narrow to those more accustomed to the warm and full sound of present-day recordings, let me assure you that historic recordings can, and do, get much much worse. It is quite regrettable, however, that the engineers chose to leave out the improvised opening flourishes of both the Partita and the Mozart Sonata.

Dinu Lipatti Lipatti’s tenacity for life and integrity towards music are by now legendary. He was a perfectionist, answering a request that he play the Tchaikovsky Concerto No.1 by saying he needed three years to prepare (for the Emperor Concerto it was four years). Throughout this final recital he gave his very best performance; the suffering he was going through never appeared in his playing, until the very last exhaustive moments. To those who ask the unending questions of why I choose to listen to the ghosts of the past and not the majesty of present greats, may I offer this recital as answer.

Naxos discs can be easily ordered from Sing Discs (Raffles City), Tower (Pacific Plaza and Suntec City), Borders (Wheelock Place) or HMV (The Heeren).

Soo Kian Hing hammers knee-caps by day, and piano keys by night.

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