Even bits and pieces reveal Lipatti's ability

July 02, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Pianist Dinu Lipatti in previously unpublished recordings of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 and of works by Scarlatti, Brahms, Bach, Bartok, Chopin, Lipatti and others (Archiphon ARC-112/113)

If the pianist in these previously unpublished bits and pieces were anyone but Dinu Lipatti, this two-CD set probably would not have been issued. These items include only one "long" piece (Liszt's 19-minute E-flat Concerto); others are the slow movement of Bartok's Third Piano Concerto, two truncated versions of Brahms' intermezzi, a radio performance of Liszt's "La Leggeriezza" (in which the opening two bars are missing), and all 40 seconds of the Ninth Etude of Schumann's "Symphonic Etudes."

Moreover, the recorded sound of these performances -- the sources are primitive test pressings and deteriorating acetates -- range from poor to awful.

While obviously not a set that can be recommended to the average music lover, it is essential listening for anyone interested in the piano. Although Lipatti had one of the shortest careers of any great musician -- he died when he was only 33 -- he built a reputation as one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. It is a reputation that has grown since his death from cancer in 1950.

Lipatti made very few studio recordings -- nearly all of them between 1947 and his death. But all have remained in print almost continuously in the last 45 years. That cannot be said about the records of any other classical musician.

Those famous recordings -- all made for EMI and currently available in six budget-priced CDs -- are remarkable. Many aficionados consider whatever Lipatti recorded -- whether Mozart's A minor Sonata, Chopin's Barcarole or the Schumann and Grieg concertos -- as the best versions of those pieces.

But the reasons that Lipatti remains so venerated a figure are not strictly musical. "Lipatti possessed both the qualities of a saint and a richly human nature," the English critic Bryce Morrison writes. For the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, he was a "manifestation of a spiritual realm resistant to all pain and suffering."

As it happens, the adulation is justified. His cancer was diagnosed in 1944 and -- except for periods in which his condition was temporarily relieved by cortisone -- he lived in agony until his death. Yet only a few months before he died, he gave his last recital in Besancon, France.

He could barely walk to the stage and was so weak that he could not summon the strength to perform the 14th Chopin waltz that concluded his program, substituting instead the Hess transcription of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desire." Yet that recital (it is available on EMI CDH 565166-2) is one of the greatest ever recorded. The Bach transcription -- the last notes the pianist played in public -- is delivered like a benediction. Only a noble man would regard his talent as a gift from God that -- despite personal pain -- had to be shared. That nobility shines in every note in Lipatti's recorded legacy.

But that legacy was created in three short years by a dying man and shows Lipatti in a restricted repertory. This new collection shows us Lipatti before his illness and also allows us to hear how he performed repertory he never recorded.

One of those pieces happens to be Liszt's knuckle-busting, flamboyant E-flat Concerto. The idea of the saintly Lipatti performing a trashy-flashy piece such as the Liszt E-flat seems preposterous. But the Liszt was the concerto he performed more than any other; he even made his debut with it in Bucharest in 1933. This 1947 performance with Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestra of the Swiss Romande is as awesome in its precision and clarity as Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's famous "pirate," and as gigantic in conception as Sviatoslav Richter's celebrated studio version from London. And, despite the awful recorded sound, it has a quality neither the Richter nor Michelangeli versions possess: great beauty of soul and heart-breaking lyricism.

Throughout these performances, one also hears Lipatti's magical sound world, filled with iridescent colors, imaginatively applied in pastels rather than oils. There is also mind-boggling virtuosity. In Liszt's "Gnomenreigen," for example, he possesses a lordly command that even Rachmaninoff's version fails to match. And there are also opportunities to hear Lipatti's Brahms. The two truncated intermezzi (opus 117, No. 2, and opus 116, No. 2) fly by with elegance and wit, without a hint of the heavy-handed sentiment with which this composer is usually served.

This is a set that does not make a satisfying meal -- for that, one must turn to Lipatti's EMI discs -- but it is filled with tantalizing tastes that help fill out the missing pieces in Lipatti's artistic profile. It is an invaluable appendix to the legacy left by one of the century's most dazzling and affecting pianists.

HEAR THE MUSIC

To hear Dinu Lipatti playing Liszt's "Gnomenreigen," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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