Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Like Rachmaninoff? Try Metallica...

Now and then we need a quick reminder that the world we're in now is - in a good way - something we couldn't have dreamed of back in 1987. Ahead of Boris Giltburg's recital at St John's Smith Square tonight, I'd like to tell you about one of my favourite things that has ever happened on Twitter.

Some months ago I was listening to Boris's recording of the Rachmaninoff Etudes-Tableaux and Moments Musicaux, which I was writing about for Primephonic and had downloaded in high-resolution from their website onto my computer. Boris plays the piano as if it's a 120-piece orchestra, with a grand-scale emotional sweep that can leave you flat on the floor experiencing a kind of legal high, wanting to turn up the volume up as far as you possibly can without scaring the neighbours. Minutes after I put out a tweet about this, a friend made a quip about heavy metal - and then along came Boris himself, suggesting Prokofiev's War Sonatas next [yes indeed - highly recommended], and then admitting he's a bit of a metal-head himself and suggesting some tracks for me to try.

In other words: in today's world you can access the best recordings with the swipe of a mouse, chat about them with your friends, thank the pianist and receive his playlist of entry-level heavy metal recordings, all within moments.

I finished that week listening to Metallica's 'One' and wishing I were 30 years younger. Next thing I knew, other classical musicians started popping up in the Twittersphere asking what took me so long, to which all you can say is "Oh, the usual problems... not knowing where to start listening, scared of looking stupid for not knowing the music, nervous about wearing the wrong thing..."

So am I possibly becoming a metal-head too, at...the age I am...? But guess what? It turns out there's an entire genre for people with long curly hair, seeking extreme musical experiences.

And finally you can blog about it and show everyone what the fuss was about in the first place. Just listen to this. With the volume up. And if the snow permits, do come to SJSS tonight. He's playing this Rachmaninov, with a bunch of Liszt Transcendental Etudes thrown in for good measure...

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Real change is afoot as PRS Foundation announces huge gender equality pledge

The PRS for Music Foundation's Europe-wide Keychange project, a large-scale initiative to tackle gender equality in the music business, has spectacular news today: it has achieved commitments from 45 (yes, forty-five) different international musical organisations to make their proceedings gender-equal (yes, 50-50 male-female) by 2022. The organisations in question include the Cheltenham International Music Festival - which has been ahead of the game on this for the past few years, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the Manchester Jazz Festival, the Aldeburgh Festival, Roundhouse Rising, Spitalfields Music and, indeed, the Proms. These are just a few examples. 

Everyone knew it was time for change; the question was how to make it happen. A century after the first small tranche of women were granted the vote in Britain, it was clear that change of this type doesn't happen on its own. It takes big and ambitious thinking, initiative, imagination, negotiation, tenacity, strong organisation and some active, solid support (in this case, a €200k grant from Creative Europe). Now this splendid development will point the way forward in no uncertain terms.

Speaking to Music Week, Vanessa Reed, CEO of the PRS Foundation, says: "The Keychange network of female artists and industry professionals and the festival partners’ idea of establishing a collective pledge will significantly accelerate change. I hope that this will be the start of a more balanced industry which will result in benefits for everyone.”

Naturally there are some cynical reactions going on - on one side from a certain type of bloke who doesn't like this sort of thing, on the other side from those who wonder why it will take until 2022 in any case (er, FYI, big international festivals usually do start planning several years ahead).

But there's no doubt that the weight of opinion has demonstrably shifted. Imagine all that splendid music we could have had if women had, over the centuries, been accorded the respect and self-respect for creative work that was granted their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons. Imagine those families who would have been happier and more balanced if the mothers, daughters and grandmothers were not angry and frustrated by being kept 'in their place'. The world shot itself in both feet by keeping women down and it's been walking hobbled all this time. Time for change. Thank you, PRS Foundation, and count us in.

Here's a list of the organisations involved:

53 Degrees North (England), Aldeburgh Festival (England), Blissfields (England), Bluedot (England), Borealis (Norway), BreakOut West (Canada), By:Larm (Norway), Canadian Music Week (Canada), Cheltenham Jazz Festival (England), Cheltenham Music Festival (England), Eurosonic Noorderslag (Netherlands), FOCUS Wales (Wales), Granada Experience (Spain), Hard Working Class Heroes (Ireland), Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (England), A2IM Indie Week (USA), BBC Music Introducing Stages (UK), Katowice JazzArt Festival (Poland), Kendal Calling (England), Liverpool International Music Festival (England), Liverpool Sound City (England), Manchester Jazz Festival (England), Midem (France), Norwich Sound and Vision (England), North By North East (Canada), NYC Winter Jazzfest (USA), Off The Record (England), Oslo World (Norway), Pop-Kultur (Germany), BBC Proms (England), Roundhouse Rising (England), Spitalfields Music (England), Sŵn (Wales), Trondheim Calling (Norway), Waves Vienna (Austria), Westway LAB (Portugal), Wide Days (Scotland), Gilles Peterson's Worldwide Festival (France)

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Beethoven, Shakespeare and Murray Perahia

Murray Perahia's recording of the Beethoven sonatas 'Hammerklavier' Op.106 and 'Moonlight' Op.27 No.2 is just out - sadly too late for my #hammerklavier roundup, but worth waiting for - and full of his extraordinary, empathetic musicianship. I wrote the booklet notes, based on an interview with the great American pianist at his London home, some extracts of which are featured in the trailer below from DG. And if there is anything more astounding than sitting in Perahia's music room while he plays Bach, it is being there while he plays this.

Moreover, his insights into the motivations behind the 'Moonlight' Sonata are absolutely remarkable. Here we find an Aeolian harp - or what Beethoven's idea of one may have been - and some imaginative associations with nothing less than Romeo and Juliet.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Beautiful Music for Bad People: a guest post by Andrew Morris

I've had a weird thing called a Day Off, in between rather stressful patches of work (I'm determined to try and do that more often than twice a year) and am therefore giving the Monday floor to my colleague Andrew Morris, from for an opinion piece: what happens to us listeners when music written for awful purposes turns out to be rather good? Here is his revisiting of Prokofiev's second stab at Stalinist propaganda... JD

Beautiful Music for Bad People

Andrew Morris is a writer on classical music, and teacher. He blogs at and tweets as @devilstrillblog.

Sergei Prokofiev in 1918
photo from Wikipedia

Like many of us, I worry. I worry about a lot of things, but I spend a significant amount of time worrying whether my friends, or my peers, or particularly my students will ever discover the wonder and joy of classical music. Will they ever lose themselves in Bach’s Passions, or thrill to the sound of an orchestra, or puzzle over the edges of music and noise? 

I try to smuggle a little music into my lessons. Students studying Napoleon heard snatches of Beethoven’s Eroica and the story that went with it. Recently, with a GCSE class investigating culture and politics in Stalin’s USSR, I used interview footage featuring the great Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, recounting the way in which, during the Soviet period, books themselves were altered as officials and artists feel in and out of favour. But I had an ulterior motive: the interview, from Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary The Red Baton, plays with clips of Sergei Prokofiev’s choral ode to Stalin, Zdravitsa (“A Toast” or “Hail to Stalin”). It’s beautiful, sweeping stuff.

It worked. At the end of the clip, my class had understood the Stalinist editing of history, but some had also rather liked the music. “It sounds really nice”, said one. The adjective might have needed work, but the point had been made: classical music could surprise you, and it could also dovetail with history in unexpected ways.

But I only worried more. This particular piece of music raised uncomfortable questions, and the fact of our enjoying it only made it more problematic. Zdravitsa was written in 1939, towards the end of Joseph Stalin’s purges of the Communist Party, the armed forces, and of society at large. Thousands were executed after sham trails; millions more were despatched to Siberia, as slave labour for Stalin’s gulags. And in the midst of this, Stalin had artists, writers, film makers, composers and the rest working to wreath him in propaganda glory, to ensure that the he was elevated to the level of a god in the minds of the population.

The piece was Prokofiev’s second stab at Stalinist propaganda. He’d left the country in 1917, but was tempted back by the authorities in 1936, who promised him the preeminent position amongst Soviet composers. Immediately, he set about writing an epic choral work to make the 20th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, but he made a disastrous miscalculation: against advice, Prokofiev decided to select texts from the writings of Lenin and Stalin for himself, rather than use officially sanctioned excerpts. This alone was enough to ensure that performance of the piece was refused, and when it came to Zdravitsa, the composer played it safe, writing a smaller and much less daring work.

It does, though, retain some special attraction. The opening melody glows in a way that only Prokofiev seems to have been able to manage. The ending is glittering and stirring enough to almost make one forget the final word of the piece is the name of the architect of so much misery: the choir exclaims “Stalin!” As music, it works, but it’s also very successful propaganda. And there’s the problem. If I enjoy it, am I turning a blind eye to the barbarity it celebrates? And if I invite my students to appreciate it purely musically, am I selling them not beauty, but rather an impression of beauty perverted for evil?

These are questions that belong very much to our time, and I’m puzzling them just as we’re being asked to re-evaluate the work of people guilty of immoral and, in some cases, illegal acts, and as we’re reconsidering art that reflects attitudes we now find unacceptable. A musical ode to Stalin ought to be the simplest case of unacceptable art there is, and yet I find myself unwilling to cast it aside quite so quickly. It’s often easy to discount this stuff on grounds of quality – Prokofiev penned other propaganda pieces which have none of the appeal – though it’s arguably the beauty and skill of the music that makes it such effective propaganda.

We must, though, give ourselves a certain degree of credit. I had chosen that film clip with two purposes in mind, but they were also connected. My students could understand the manipulation at the heart of propaganda while at the same time finding it aesthetically appealing. They weren’t going to become enthusiastic Stalinists because I’d played them some Prokofiev. Understanding that beautiful things could serve terrible masters is valuable in itself and sometimes the impulse to remove the morally problematic denies us the opportunity to consider these sorts of ambiguities. Appreciating the quality of Prokofiev’s music for Stalin doesn’t preclude an understanding of the regime it was created to serve; I would argue it only deepens it. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

And yesterday was...

Jelly d'Arányi: Schumann heroine
...the 80th anniversary of the UK premiere of the Schumann Violin Concerto, given by our own Jelly d'Arányi with Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Queen's Hall, London. If I remember right, the second half contained the UK premiere of Sibelius 5. As this event forms the climax and final chapter of my Ghost Variations I really should have flagged it up on the day, especially as I had been intending to do so for months on end.

Fortunately, the Royal Northern Sinfonia did notice, and planned ahead, and got Alina Ibragimova to come up and play it, and Radio 3 noticed too and broadcast the concert, so it is now, happily, available to listen to on the BBC iPlayer, here.

The full history involved a surprise "spirit message" ostensibly from Schumann; a hunt - by the Swedish Minister in London - through the music libraries of Berlin; a propaganda exercise by the Nazis, who wanted the Schumann concerto to replace the banned Mendelssohn in their people's affections; a reworking of the piece because it didn't, er, quite fit the bill - mostly assigned, unbeknownst to the authorities, to Hindemith; the intervention of Yehudi Menuhin, the young Jewish American violin superstar to whom the publishers from Nazi Germany sent a photostat of the manuscript; and a scandal when the story of the "spirit messages" broke just weeks before Jelly was supposed to give the London premiere, which was then delayed for about four months, though mostly because the Nazis kept changing the date of the German premiere... The saga took some disentangling, but much of it is in Ghost Variations.

...which is not a "romantic story", as one lady I met at a party fondly imagined, but is about the rise of facsism and a warning from history. Eighty years ago does not seem such a long time, being easily within living memory. Several years after the performance, the Queen's Hall was flattened in the Blitz. Tovey died in 1939, as did Jelly's brother-in-law. Myra Hess became a national heroine. Things change. Things can change fast when balance is lost. This was the edge of madness - for Schumann, for Jelly, for the world itself - and we shouldn't forget, because we may be at another edge of madness now.

David Le Page, Viv McLean and I are also doing a Ghost Variations concert this week, the nearest thing we have to an anniversary performance: it will be under the auspices of the Leicester International Music Festival which runs a series of lunchtime concerts year round. It's at the Victorian Art Gallery, New Walk Museum, Leicester, on Thursday 22 February, 1pm. The programme has been adapted for a one-hour format and includes some pieces new to our programme, not least by Gluck and Elgar. We do hope you'll come along if you're in the area. More details here.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Opera season: the might-have beens.

Having recently experienced from the inside just what it is like to create an opera (it's rather like building the world's largest cruise-ship), I've been thinking about The Ones That Got Away. The operas that were never written. The operas that composers longed to write, but were never able to because they couldn't get the copyright or couldn't get the commissions or died before they could even begin. Here are a few of the works that might have graced our stages, but don't.

Goethe, painting by Tischbein
1. FAUST, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Goethe loved Mozart's music and stated that he would be the ideal composer to transform his Faust into an opera. Other composers were a bit too modern for his taste. The first inklings of Faust were published as Faust - A Fragment, in 1790. Mozart died before any prospect of it could become even a bit viable. Don Giovanni is probably the closest approximation...

2. WAITING FOR GODOT, by Pierre Boulez. The late French composer and conductor was widely rumoured to be planning an opera on Beckett's masterpiece, and I asked him about it in 2012. Indeed, the frail 87-year-old confirmed, he would love to write it if he were granted long enough on earth. Sadly, he wasn't.

3. Unnamed (I think) opera on a story by Ivan TURGENEV, by Johannes Brahms. In Baden-Baden,
Brahms was introduced to the Russian author by Pauline Viardot, the singer with whom Turgenev was obsessed for most of his life. Much socialising took place in the beautiful German spa town, Viardot's home, where she had a little theatre in the back garden, and Turgenev drafted a libretto for the composer. Unfortunately Brahms never set it. It told the story of a 40-something man who fell in love with a young 20-something woman, and it's possible Brahms took it a bit personally, since he had been pursuing his beloved Clara Schumann's daughter Julie about that time. Julie married a young man of her own vintage, but died tragically of tuberculosis soon afterwards; in her memory, Brahms wrote the Alto Rhapsody for Viardot to sing.

4. THE VICTORS, by Richard Wagner. It was going to be an opera on the life of the Buddha and Wagner sketched some ideas for it. But then he realised he had already written his Buddhist opera and it was Parsifal...

Fauré's sketch of Verlaine
5. THE BUDDHA. Again. This time, words by Paul Verlaine, music by Gabriel Fauré. The Princesse de Polignac, one of Fauré's most important patrons, wanted to bring the poet and composer together to create an opera and Fauré set about tracking Verlaine down. He found him in hospital, succumbing to alcoholism. They talked about making an opera on the life of the Buddha. Fauré sketched him. But Verlaine's commitment to his drink proved stronger than his drive to write a libretto. In the end Fauré played the organ at his funeral. Nevertheless, he set Verlaine's poetry in some of his finest songs, including the Cinq Mélodies de Venise and La bonne chanson.

6. HIAWATHA, by Antonín Dvorák. When Dvorák went to America to run the New York Conservatory of Music, he was charged (by its sponsor, Jeannette Thurber) with the task of inventing a national style of music for the nation. Researching possibilities, he became fascinated by Negro Spirituals and likewise by the story of Hiawatha, in the poem by Henry W. Longfellow. He aimed to turn the poem into an opera and sketched some material for it. For some reason the board of the conservatory had to approve his libretto. And they didn't approve it. And this stopped him from writing the thing. Some of the music ended up in his Symphony No.9, in which form it is now ubiquitously famous.

7. REBECCA, by Roxanna Panufnik, libretto by muggins, based on Daphne du Maurier. A few years ago we tried for but couldn't get the stage rights, which had been recently awarded to a musical. It was a little bit heartbreaking. Never mind... we ended up creating Silver Birch instead. We have plenty more ideas, and you know where to find us.

8. SILENCE, by Poldowski. Unlike the others on this list, this 'symphonic opera' was both written and published (in New York sometime around 1920). So where is it? 'Poldowski' was the pseudonym of Irène Régine Wieniawska, daughter of the violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski; after her marriage she was Lady Dean Paul. Her music is simply fabulous. Its non-existence today has nothing to do with its lack of creation.

9. DEIRDRE, by Arnold Bax, on an Irish story by WB Yeats. Fascinating stuff, this, sketched in part yet never fully realised. Read all about it here.

10. OSSIANE, by Marie Jaëll. A disciple of Liszt and a devoted pianist and composer, Jaëll was a 19th-century French musician unlucky enough to be born in an era when living for your art wasn't an accepted life approach for a young woman. She managed to do so anyway, though she seems to have suffered psychologically, and her music can be, to judge from what I've heard, a bit patchy. Still, this opera would be fascinating. It was written - but only extracts survive. The amazing Palazzetto Bru Zane has devoted a recording and accompanying book to some of her other works. More about her from the brilliant Song of the Lark blog here.

And last, but by no means least, the excellent Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, faced with new opera seasons in the US that look chiefly like Same Old with Some Stars, has tweeted her own ideal opera season: all of them splendid operas that happen to have been composed by women. Here it is, and hear hear to it all!

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Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Love the Magic! A guest post by Jack Pepper

I'm on an editorial job at the moment that is leaving me no time even to think, much less blog, so I have invited our informal Youth Correspondent, Jack Pepper (composer, writer, broadcaster, 18) to offer another guest post. Here is his view on why we classical audiences could enjoy being a little bit more demonstrative in responding to the music... or even face the music and dance.

Love the Magic
Jack Pepper

In a 2017 interview discussing the reasons for his success, André Rieu argued that “love and authenticity” are sometimes “hard to find in other classical concerts”. Perhaps it’s not that love and authenticity are lacking in other concerts, but they are instead less clearly evident. Rieu may have identified a problem….

André Rieu's Maastricht concert (2015).
Photo from

Love and authenticity are hardly difficult to come by amongst classical musicians. The very nature of practising – working for hours at the same pages, and returning again and again – makes it ludicrous to suggest that most musicians in this field lack love and authenticity. They are most likely in this career out of love, because only the very top few percent make bucket-loads of money. However, Rieu may be correct in implying that love and authenticity are not always as bombastically displayed in other concerts in comparison to his own; where Rieu rightly displays his affection for the music through smiles, elegant gestures and bright costumes, other instrumentalists go for a simpler touch. They don’t aim so much for a ‘look’ or a ‘brand’, instead using the music alone as their image. Think of Haitink’s restrained gestures on the podium, or the control of Brendel at the piano. Rieu is a showman, and clearly loves the music he plays, but so do all the other performers who may be less flamboyant. But is there is a problem with this? Does a lack of flamboyance suggest a lack of love for the music?

Of course not.  We all react to art in different ways – just think of the last time you cried at a movie, or, if this doesn’t apply to you, the last time you scoffed at someone for doing so – and the same applies to performers. But Rieu’s comment does raise an interesting question about listeners: are we too serious, too high-minded, too restrained about the music we hold dear?

At a rock concert, we might see headbanging. At a hip hop concert, we might see mosh pits. At a world music festival, we might see dancing. It seems all of the various genres of music involve audience participation at one point or another in a concert, and yet what does classical music have as an equivalent? Audience members often get frustrated by coughs and sneezes, actively discouraging any sound or movement from anyone other than the instrumentalists on stage. It says a lot about our attitudes to the genre that we consider the Last Night of the Proms raucous; in any other context, an audience clapping, cheering and waving some flags would be considered at best the norm, at worst rather sober. 

There is nothing wrong about this, since – as I previously argued – we all react to music in different ways, and surely this applies to different genres too. If we want classical concerts to be known for focus and intent, there is nothing wrong with that. However, my concern is that this tradition of audience restraint in classical concerts in reality stifles our individual reactions to the music. Instead of being a tradition of focus and intent, it seems more a tradition of restricting the joy we feel deep down when we hear a great piece of music. By sensing some unspoken concert code of conduct, we are reluctant to react to the music we love in ways that feel genuine and spontaneous to us. Silence is not the natural way to react to powerful music.

Rieu’s comment focuses on classical performers where perhaps it would be better focused on the listeners themselves. Whilst all such listeners undoubtedly love the music presented, it would often be hard to tell by appearances alone. Why should someone be reprimanded for clapping after a rousing first movement, if the infectiousness of the music drove them to do so? Why should someone be sneered at for moving in their chair at the buoyant rhythms of a scherzo? More radical still, why can’t we have concerts where people can move, dance, cheer, clap and sing?

I’m not advocating a return to the 18th-century, where audiences attending an opera were often present for anything but the opera itself. But classical music seems to me to have lost its sense of celebration – celebrating the greatest music ever written – and with it, its sense of fun. Why should we restrict audience participation to one night of a concert season?! In previous centuries, there would have been chamber music for such intimate expressions of individuality and togetherness, but we live in a time when it would be considered unusual to gather round a piano as a family and sing a favourite song. Nor do many couples attend a dance, an event that previously offered the opportunity to express our reactions to music spontaneously and without judgement. The larger scale concerts have become, for many of us, our most intimate form of music-making, and yet this has not translated to the way we react to the music we hear at classical recitals.

It could be argued that heartfelt cries of joy would be distracting in a classical concert, and that pieces require focus and silence in order to be fully appreciated. Why not react with a dance or a shriek at home to a recording, where nobody else can be distracted from the music? Such an attitude feels oppressive. Music is meant to be a universal language, and a language that touches a deeper part of our subconscious than anything else. Why, then, must we force ourselves to be so serious when listening to it?

Rieu is wrong to suggest other musicians lack love and authenticity. Listeners equally harbour an abundance of love and authenticity for the music they enjoy. The question lies with whether we show it. I don’t advocate applauding or crying for the sake of reacting, but I strongly believe that the first time we listened to such a piece of music, we would have reacted this way. The unspoken code of conduct – of quiet, rigidity and unobtrusiveness – has conditioned us to stay silent. Music is designed to provoke emotions, response and new thoughts, and whilst we undoubtedly revere a work, are we truthfully reacting to it at all if we sit in a concert as rigid as a corpse? Marilyn Manson described music as “the strongest form of magic”. It’s time that we were open to the way we feel about the music we so love, to celebrate it. It’s time that we feel free to show the magic that makes us listen.

Friday, February 09, 2018

In the footsteps of Lipatti: a guest post by Orlando Murrin

Last November I was lucky enough to be in the audience at Cadogan Hall when a brief yet desperately haunting sliver of film was shown for the first time: the only known cinematic images of the pianist Dinu Lipatti. He died at the age of 33 and remains to this day a figure attracting reverence and longing amongst pianophiles and more. Orlando Murrin - best known as a journalist and former editor of BBC Good Food, to which I used to subscribe assiduously - is behind this discovery and presented it before a concert in which Alexandra Dariescu played Lipatti's gorgeous, neoclassical, Bachy-Stravinskyish Concertino. He has written us a guest post about his continuing hunt for material - and an ongoing quest to convince publishers and film-makers of the worth of a book or documentary. Enjoy! JD

In the footsteps of Dinu Lipatti

By Orlando Murrin

From a private album of Madeleine Lipatti.
On the back, in her hand: "Où? Je ne sais plus mais nous étions heureux - - " Credit: Collection Mme Cathérine Nurock-Foëx

 A couple of years ago I found myself with some time on my hands, and decided I would devote it to researching a musician who has fascinated me all my life - the Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti.

I can remember the exact moment my interest was triggered, at the barbaric boarding school in the West Country to which I was sent at the age of 13. Sunday evenings were cheered up - as much as they could be - by club and society meetings, held in the masters’ houses. A couple of times a term, the ‘Gramophone Society’ would gather and listen to records, and in the gaps between symphonies and string quartets, we would ask stupid questions. What is the hardest piece of music in the world? (‘Islamey’, apparently - though it could just have been the most virtuosic piece the music master had on vinyl.) Who’s the best pianist ever? ‘Liszt. After him, a Romanian who died young, called Dinu Lipatti.’

I should explain at this point that unlike most contributors to this august blog, I am not a professional music writer, critic or musicologist, and although I used to supplement my meagre income as a magazine sub-editor by playing the piano in restaurants, I am not even a professional musician. I love classical music, however, as much as anyone, and over decades of listening, remain convinced that - at least about Lipatti - I was told right.

Of course, Lipatti’s death at the age of just 33 - the last seven years under the curse of a terrible illness - means his legacy is pretty slender. When I first collected his records, there were about three hours of music; more have come to light over the years - including crackly bootlegs from concerts - and now there are about six. The most extraordinary remains the Last Recital, a performance of unearthly beauty recorded live in Besançon just three months before the pianist’s death: unable to finish the programme, which he played with unearthly beauty, his eyes set on the middle distance as if gazing into the hereafter, he staggered off stage, only to return a few minutes later to play for the final time his signature encore, ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’.

So what makes his playing so special? For a start, his impeccable phrasing, glowing sonority and absolute technical mastery. His dazzling range of tonal colour and innate, unostentatious rubato. The ‘momentum’ he gives to his performance, as he drives the listener through whatever musical structure he is presenting. If there is a Wigmore Hall in the skies, I feel Bach, Schubert and Chopin would choose Lipatti to perform their compositions, rather than Richter or Horowitz. His delivery is immaculate, discreet and seamless, as if he is clothing the music in the most expensive of Savile Row suits.

As a performer, Lipatti had something else, which we have to imagine for ourselves: charisma. There was something of the Valentino about this small, intense young man, with his exotic, brooding good looks, and who played the piano with ‘steel fingers in velvet gloves’. From the outset, audiences (and critics) went wild for him, and his concert appearances (mainly restricted to Switzerland, as illness took its inexorable hold) began to attract an almost religious fanaticism.
A rare photo of Lipatti taken only days before his death, with a nurse.
Credit: Collection Mme Cathérine Nurock-Foëx

Another area of fascination is his life story, which is so melodramatic it is surprising it hasn’t been made into a film. Among the myriad elements are…
     his privileged background, scion of a wealthy family in the Golden Age of Romania
     a ruthlessly ambitious mother, who dragged the family off to Paris so her son could study with Cortot
     the misfiring of his career, at the outbreak of the Second World War, and ill-judged propaganda tours of Germany and the Axis territories
     his headlong love affair with a married beauty nine years his senior (a princess, no less) and subsequent ‘elopement’ to Switzerland
     their hand-to-mouth existence in Geneva, and the onset of a terrible mystery illness (finally diagnosed as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma)
     the ruin and humiliation of Lipatti’s family back in Romania, and his mother’s ill-fated attempt to visit him (caught smuggling jewellery in her underwear and thrown into jail at the Romanian border)
     his glorious remission in 1950 (thanks to cortisone, flown from the USA at vast expense by well-wishers) and that testament to his courage and spirit, the Last Recital (arguably the most famous concert of the 20th century)
     his posthumous ‘stardom’ and phenomenal record sales, which enriched his widow but could not prevent…
     her descent into depression and drink, and eventual death 33 years later, surrounded by ’millions’ of cats and enmired in the ‘Chopin Concerto Scandal’, in which she had misidentified one of her late husband’s recordings.

The plaque on the Lipattis' home street in Geneva. It was
put up last year, funded through the generosity of Lipatti's doctor's
daughter, who has set up a foundation in their joint
names to finance medical research into leukaemia.
Readers will not be surprised that once I started probing into this colourful tale, I could not stop. I found myself striking up surprising new friendships, way beyond my normal sphere (some might say, out of my normal league…). With warm-hearted pianist and Lipatti fan Alberto Portugheis, who studied with Lipatti’s widow. With Lipatti’s meticulous, gracious-mannered biographer, Grigore Barguaunu, in Paris. With the patient, wise Christian Mitetelu and his violinist wife Ioana Raluca Voicu, who guided me through the finer points of Romania’s otherwise baffling political history.  With the disarmingly personable historic recordings expert Mark Ainley, in Vancouver, who recently discovered 15 minutes of Lipatti playing Scarlatti and Brahms, and believes there is more out there yet.

I also started to make discoveries of my own. During a study trip to Bucharest, I found the Lipatti family home in danger of demolition and launched a campaign to try and save it (so far, successful). I tracked down 27 seconds of cine film showing Lipatti at a garden party in Lucerne in 1947 - the only footage in existence - and premiered it at last November’s Lipatti centenary concert at Cadogan Hall. Since then, I travelled to Geneva and unearthed two major hauls of unpublished papers and photographs, including intimate love letters and diaries. (I don’t blush easily but some are really intimate.)

The question I am now faced with is what to do with this wealth of new material. So far I have written an article about Lipatti for the Daily Telegraph (‘Is this the Greatest Pianist of the 20th Century?’) and championed him for an episode of ‘Great Lives’ on BBC Radio 4. I have enough research for a new biography, except that I have been reliably informed that it would not be published, because the subject matter is ‘too esoteric’. My current hope is to interest a documentary film producer in the project, using the cine film footage as a peg, and interspersing the story with interviews of some of the compelling figures that make up his cult following today. There is a ‘peg’, too - the 70th anniversary of the Last Recital (and Lipatti’s death) falls in 2020.

Whatever the end result, the time I have spent with Lipatti, his story and - of course - his legendary recordings, has been among the most enriching of my life. Those Sunday evenings at boarding school were not wasted.

     If readers would like to get in touch with me regarding anything Lipatti, please feel free via Particularly if you happen to have in your attic the lost recording of Lipatti playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, broadcast by the Third Programme at 9.30pm on 20 April 1948…
     The newly discovered recordings of Lipatti playing Scarlatti and Brahms are due to be released imminently by Marston Records (though they’ve been saying that for months)
     The ‘fan club’ gravitates around the Dinu Lipatti Society Facebook page