In the early 1950’s, classical music suffered the loss of two of its brightest stars, Dinu Lipatti and William Kapell. In a cruel coincidence, they died at almost the same age, and within three years of each other: Lipatti was 33 when he died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1950, and Kapell was 31 when a plane crash took his life in 1953. The loss to 20th-century pianism was incalculable. Both of them had entered the period of full artistic maturity, and had received critical recognition commensurate with their enormous gifts. We will look more closely at Lipatti today, and at Kapell in our next post.
Dinu Lipatti was born into a musical family on March 19, 1917 in Bucharest, Romania. Piano lessons with his mother began at age 4; other early teachers included Mihail Jora and Florica Musicescu. To mention just one of his early accomplishments, at age 13, Lipatti performed Grieg’s Piano Concerto at the Bucharest Opera.
In 1934, Lipatti moved to Paris to study with Alfred Cortot, and began to concertize there in 1935. At the outbreak of World War II, he returned to Romania and continued his concert career until 1943, when he moved to Switzerland and accepted a professorship at the Geneva Conservatory. Shortly after his arrival, he began to experience health problems that would plague him for the rest of his life, and which would finally be diagnosed in 1947 as Hodgkin’s disease.
Lipatti’s last public performance, which was recorded, took place on September 16, 1950 at the annual music festival in Besançon, France. His doctors had advised against the recital, but his program made no concession to his illness. It included Bach’s first Partita, Mozart’s Sonata No. 8 in A minor, two Impromptus by Schubert, and Chopin’s 14 Waltzes. Regarding the recording of this recital, Peter Gutmann writes, “Perhaps the greatest tribute to Lipatti is that listeners can easily forget the poignant circumstances of this concert. The playing is nearly note-perfect, each piece is brilliantly conceived, and every phrase is alive with inflection, deeply expressive but under perfect emotional control. The only hint of trouble, and a very subtle one at that, is that Lipatti played only thirteen of Chopin’s set of fourteen waltzes; realizing that he lacked the strength, he did not even attempt the last one but instead ended the concert and his artistic life with a short and soft Bach chorale, the final prayer of a consummate musician.”
No less an authority than Artur Schnabel declared that Lipatti’s playing was “an entirely new way of playing the piano.” Schnabel was devastated by his death, and spoke of “a very real and personal loss. I admired and liked that boy immensely. He was one of the most attractive personalities I have known in my life.”
Fortunately, Lipatti left a significant recorded legacy. This recording of Bach’s Partita No. 1 was made at that final recital in Besançon. No video of that performance exists, but the audio quality is excellent, and we must all be grateful that this final expression of Lipatti’s genius was preserved for the ages.
Finally, here is the “short and soft Bach chorale” with which Lipatti concluded his artistic life. This is Myra Hess’ transcription of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Lipatti died less than three months later, in Geneva.