Dinu Lipatti: The Hunt for Lost Recordings

How amazing that 65 years after Lipatti’s death, some gems of this great artist’s pianism are still coming to light and that there is still such admiration for his profound artistry. Let us hope that even more will be located as more archives transfer their material and more private collections come to light!

Biography / Writings / Studies

I was in my teens in the 1980s when I discovered Lipattis playing and like many others I wished for more recordings than the few hours that had been released by EMI and Electrocord. But particularly when I heard his incredible performance of RavelsAlborada del Gracioso, I realized there were dimensions to Lipattis pianism that were not captured in the limited repertoire that he recorded in the studio. He was not always a sick pianist but rather was a towering virtuoso with the most refined musicality.

I was stunned when I read an essay by his widow Madeleine where she mentioned Lipatti having played the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata at the same 1943 radio broadcast that brought us the Enescu Third Sonata, which had been released on record.  Where was the Beethoven recording? It must surely exist! And so, in 1988 at the age of 18, I began my research into lost Lipatti recordings. Unfortunately that particular Beethoven performance has not been found - I wrote to Radio Bern first thing, but they not only didnt have the Waldstein, they didnt even have a copy of the Enescu Sonata - but a great deal more has been discovered. I am delighted that Lipattis discography is now bigger than before - and more is yet to come.

After contacting Radio Bern, the next place I wrote was the International Piano Archives at Maryland. I was delighted to learn that they had copies of test recordings Lipatti had made in Paris in 1936 and Bucharest in 1941, and I soon obtained a copy of that tape. I could not believe that this playing had not been issued before - particularly the lyrical Brahms and dazzling Liszt, a Gnomenreigen where one can truly hear the dance of the gnomes. 

Radio Geneva had no major additions to Lipattis discography, as the Schumann Concerto from 1950 with Ansermet had been released on record. They did, however, have two interviews with Lipatti - what a thrill to hear his voice! - and in one of them he played two works, a Valse by Chopin and a Chorale by Bach-Busoni. While he had recorded these works just two weeks previously, there is a greater depth to these performances than in the commercial recordings.

In 1989 I found that the Sudwestfunk at Baden-Baden had a broadcast recording of the Bartok Third Concerto with Lipatti. I wrote to inquire about it, and without any prior correspondence and free of charge they sent me a cassette copy in the mail - but it got lost! Only the cover of the envelope arrived - an incredible disappointment! So I phoned and arranged to visit Germany on a research trip in the summer of 1990 to pick up a copy directly at the radio station. One can hear that Lipatti was more sick in this performance, but his playing still has tremendous power. I took the recording to EMI headquarters in London, and one year later they communicated that they felt that the playing was not worthy of Lipattis memory and should not be issued. 

Also in 1991, quite by chance, I discovered a recording of Lipatti playing Liszts La Leggierezza. I was at the National Sound Archive in London (which has now moved to the British Library) and I decided to search the card catalogue - as we did in pre-digital days! - for compositions that Lipatti had performed, just in case a recording wasnt properly cross-referenced under his name. And I was right to do so: I found in the Liszt category on tape 101W a performance of Lipatti playing La Leggierezza. This was not, as I thought at the time, the 1946 EMI recording that was never published but was lost, but instead a BBC broadcast from 1947. The pianism is, of course, mesmerizing, demonstrating Lipattis marvellous articulation and minuscule adjustments of tempo to create an almost spinning effect in some of the dazzling runs. 

That same year, I heard from Lipattis biographer Grigore Bargauanu that a collector in Switzerland had acetate discs of Lipatti playing the Liszt First Concerto. I visited Dr Marc Gertsch in Bern the following year and then introduced him to my colleague in Germany, recording archivist Werner Unger. Gertsch agreed to give Unger access to his archive so that he could transfer his recordings - and these formed the basis of the 1994 double-disc release of Lipatti - Les Inédits. The worn records of this 1947 Liszt Concerto performance,including one cracked disc, were remastered to reveal stunning playing of tremendous dramatic inflection and virtuosity. 

We also obtained Gertschs tape of Lipattis February 1950 Zurich performance of Chopins First Concerto. EMI had done a terrible job in remastering it in 1981, and Unger and I would later do a much better remastering that we would release in the year 2000. But also in Gertschs collection was a mini reel-tape that seemed to come from a master broadcast tape of the concert - 3 minutes from the second movement of the concerto and the two Chopin Etudes Lipatti played after the intermission, in full-fidelity sound - the best-sounding Lipatti recordings that exist to date, also issued in 1994 and 2000. 

When we were preparing our year 2000 tribute for the 50th anniversary of Lipattis death, we contacted EMI to see what they had planned - and they realized then that they had arranged nothing in recognition of this best-selling artist! "What do you suggest? they asked us. So I proposed the same CD compilation I had suggested back in 1991: the Bach-Busoni D Minor Concerto, the Liszt First Concerto, and the Bartok Third Concerto, three concertos spanning three distinct repertoire periods. The Bach-Busoni had first been obtained by Gregor Benko of the International Piano Archives in 1973 in an exchange with a Swiss collector. At the time, however, Benko didnt know that Lipatti had played the Ravel G Major Concerto at the same concert, and sadly that performance has not been found. By 2000, Paul Sacher had died and so it was now possible to release the entire Bartok Third Concerto - he had only agreed to the second movement in 1994 - so EMI finally accepted my proposal and I am delighted that these 3 concertos are now part of Lipattis official EMI discography, all three of them giving a more expansive view of his artistry and interpretative abilities. 

There seemed to be little progress in the first decade of the millennium until I one day realized that the internet could help with some missing pieces. We had located in Gertschs collection two of the six 78-rpm sides Lipatti had recorded with his cellist friend Antonio Janigro in 1947. In 1990 I had heard from Elisabeth Schwarzkopf that Lipattis producer Walter Legges test pressings had been taken by a collector who refused to part with them. With the help of Google in 2008, I located Janigros daughter in Milan, had a local friend contact her in Italian on my behalf, and she put me in touch with a student and friend of Janigros in Germany and before long a cassette came in the mail featuring 5 out of the 6 recordings they made - including the first movement of the Beethoven Third Cello Sonatathe first recorded Beethoven we have featuring Lipatti! The original discs have now been digitally transferred by Werner Unger.

With the production of Philippe Rogers 2010 film about Lipattis last recital in Besançon came a new series of photographs of the pianist - not just from Besançon-based photographer Michel Meusy, but also from other sources, and with that was revealed unpublished audio from Lipattis legendary last recital. While the LP release of the recital famously included Lipattis preluding before the Bach Partita and Mozart Sonata - something very few pianists of his generation did - it did not include his warmups prior to the Schubert and Chopin yet how wonderfully beautiful these arpeggios are, particularly those before the Schubert. It is hoped that the entire broadcast will be issued - and that his final encore of Jesu, Joy of Mans Desiringwill be found, as that no longer exists in French archives.

And with that Schubert in Besançon, another mystery. During my visit to Dr Unger in Germany in 2015, we went through more items from Gertschs archive which had not been transferred before the collector died last year. Among them was a French radio transcription disc of the Schubert G-Flat Impromptu - what is significant here is a wrong note that is not present in either the broadcast tape or the commercial release it had been edited out from both! Computerized tests have determined that the Schubert Impromptu as published features the same passage duplicated from later in the performance in order to edit out the wrong note, yet with the mistake, we can appreciate the humanity of Lipattis miraculous playing and his dire condition at his final public appearance.

Also in the collection we discovered two sets each of the Bartok Third Concerto and Lipattis own Concertino, each one in two formats: custom-made 78s and LP. These appear to have been transferred in 1954 for Madeleine Lipattis use from the master source material. The recording of the Concertino is also with Paul Sacher at the Südwestfunk. We have not yet done tests but we believe that this might be a different performance than the one issued on Les Inédits - and we now know that Lipatti played both the Bartok Third Concerto and his Concertino in the same broadcast of May 30, 1948 in Baden-Baden.

Additionally we have a copy of the master LP pressing of the 1943 Radio Bern broadcast of the Enescu Third Sonata, which EMI has always issued at the wrong pitch but unfortunately we have not found a transfer of that elusive Waldstein.

We also came across three EMI test pressings: the Bach-Busoni Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,the Bach-Hess Jesu, Joy of Mans Desiring, and one section of the Grieg Concerto. The matrix numbers on the records reveal that all three of them are different takes from those released commercially! Of particular interest is the Bach-Hess: we know that Lipatti made multiple takes of this over the years and was never satisfied until the final version. Interestingly, I find this particular 1950 performance to be better than the one that has been released.  

Perhaps the most thrilling news has been in development for 8 years: private records bought from a Geneva estate that ended up in New York that took years to obtain. A private collector who had bought them at an estate sale wanted to sell them but was very evasive about doing so - but then he died and the record store he was affiliated with got them into Gregor Benkos hands, and the legendary remastering producer Ward Marston salvaged what he could. These are most definitely authentic private Lipatti recordings, with the same Geneva recording companys label as found on discs from his widows collection and Lipattis distinctive handwriting and signature on many of the labels. Sadly, some records were so damaged that they could not be played, but there are 15 minutes of previously unissued material, including 3 works by Brahms and a Scarlatti Sonata that are new to Lipattis discography - and the playing is absolutely Lipatti, with his distinctive style. These are scheduled to be released in 2016 in a Landmarks of Recorded Pianism compilation on the Marston Records label - a stunningly exciting development for Lipatti fans and the piano world.

How amazing that 65 years after Lipattis death, some gems of this great artists pianism are still coming to light and that there is still such admiration for his profound artistry. Let us hope that even more will be located as more archives transfer their material and more private collections come to light!