Soon after his career took off, Dinu Lipatti’s health began to deteriorate. But his acute sense of mortality made his music even better, says Orlando Murrin
At 5pm on September 16, 1950, a packed audience at Besançon in eastern France witnessed one of the most extraordinary events in musical history. A frail, haunted young man staggered on to the platform and sat down at the piano; the audience held its breath. It seemed impossible that someone so palpably near death could play a recital; his doctors – everyone – had begged him to cancel.
But the young man had demurred – the event had been sold out for weeks, dozens of people without tickets were clustered outside the hall, desperate to hear what they could, and he had refused to let them down.
“I have promised,” Dinu Lipatti said, “and I have to play.”
After the thunderous applause died down, the pale-faced Lipatti started to play a couple of arpeggio, softly and rather nervously. This kind of warm-up was known as “preluding”, and was slightly old-fashioned even in 1950. Then, his fingers touched the first notes of the Bach partita and something astonishing happened: according to witnesses, a sort of divine peace settled over the hall.
Lipatti had chosen a programme of the music most dear to him; he, and everyone present, seemed to know this was his final musical offering to the world. After Bach, Mozart; after Mozart, Schubert; and then, in the second half, the complete set of 14 Chopin waltzes. These fizz with life, like a box of fireworks, and Lipatti played them like someone staring death defiantly in the face.
Only at the very end of the programme did the 33-year-old Romanian falter. Unable to complete the last Chopin waltz, he gave a sublime rendition of the work that had been his “signature” piece throughout his short but phenomenal career: Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.
And that was his finale. Eleven weeks later, a few months short of his 34th birthday, Lipatti suffered a massive haemorrhage and died in the arms of his wife.
Today, the pianist’s reputation has retreated into the shadows. Apart from that last recital – which remains one of the most precious, and poignant, artefacts in the classical catalogue – Lipatti left only five hours of recordings, including crackly bootlegs from live performances. But his status as one of the 20th century’s greatest pianists is set to be restored this year, thanks to a series of events to mark the centenary of his birth.
Lipatti was born in Bucharest on March 19 1917 into a wealthy, music-loving family of Greek-Albanian descent. At the age of 3 ½, he was heard picking out a scale on the piano; two days later, he could do it in octaves; within six months, he had mastered a Bach prelude. But his health problems also began young; at seven he was diagnosed with scoliosis. This, along with the multitudinous hours he spent toiling away at the piano, contributed to his slightly odd physical development: small and slight, but with oversized shoulders, and enormous, powerful hands.
Anna, his mother, made sure he had the best teachers, and thanks to his natural talent, self-discipline and intelligence, Dinu made lightning progress. At 16, he was talent-spotted by Alfred Cortot, and invited to study with him in Paris. Cortot hailed his protégé as “a new star on the horizon of pianists” and early reviews were ecstatic. Dinu’s intense expression and the dark romance of his eyes further enhanced his stage appeal. His publicity pictures have something of Rudolph Valentino about them.
In 1943, Dinu took up residence in Switzerland, where he was struck down by what was initially diagnosed as lung disease. Symptoms included nausea, headaches and feelings of suffocation. Nevertheless, over the next seven years, and perversely hand-in-hand with his declining health, his reputation soared. He felt a sort of “upwelling of love” from his audiences, while award-winning records made his reputation global.
Just what was it that critics and fans were reacting to? The simple answer is that there was something new and different in Lipatti’s playing – something beyond his obvious technical mastery. He despised showmanship, and believed the performer’s job was to serve the composer, not the other way round. In a sense, he is the pivot who tilts us from the “heroic” school of piano playing founded by Liszt, towards the more “intellectual” approach later championed by Brendel and Schiff.
“There’s a sort of dash to his playing, a twist rubbed round the rim of the Martini glass,” says pianist Stephen Hough, who rates Lipatti’s performance of Ravel’s Alborada del Gracioso as “one of the greatest five minutes of piano-playing ever recorded”.
Lipatti’s illness was finally diagnosed as Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1947. He received the most advanced treatment of the day, but the remorseless bombardment of x‑rays and injections took its toll on his already weakened system. He kept up his spirits by knitting (the threading of yarns through the work reminded him of the lines in polyphonic music), reading and listening to the radio. An ardent correspondent, his letters fluctuate between jubilant optimism and calm resignation.
“Oh God, why must one live with the knowledge of death when life could be so beautiful from a creative point of view?” he wrote to Florica Musicescu, his much-loved piano teacher in Bucharest.
When he could get out of bed, he played through his repertoire, and devised “less tiring” programmes. There were many cancellations, but when he did emerge – albeit “deathly green” – his playing was undimmed and the critics rapturous.
Just two days before Besançon, he felt a surge of hope: “Splendidly back on my feet. Little by little my vitality and muscular strength are returning… It gives me hope that in a year’s time I shall be able to play those bravura pieces which I thought this accursed illness had forbidden me, forever… I hope to play about twice a month.”
Tragically, it was not to be.
“Music is a serious matter,” Lipatti once told his students, “it must be served.” Today – 67 years after his death – his own performances sound as diamond-bright as the day he recorded them, and one is surely justified in suspecting that Bach, Chopin – in fact, every composer he touched – would indeed be satisfied.
Radio 3’s Through the Night will feature music composed and performed by Dinu Lipatti from 1am this Sunday