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