Wednesday, March 11, 2009

We lock horns with Dinu Lipatti

I know that being the authorized biographer of a pianist I am supposed to be objective and everything. And I try. I try!

But just now I found myself listening to the famed Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti playing the simple Brahms A flat waltz.

Then I listened to Leonard Pennario playing it.

There was no comparison!

I am not speaking ill of Lipatti. Perhaps this comes down to a matter of taste. But to me Pennario's version is so warm, so full, next to Lipatti's. Lipatti's is nice, but it's kind of staccato, perfunctory and cold. Pennario's is slow. Sensuous. Grown-up. Passionate.

At the end, when Lipatti just kind of flips the thing off, Pennario finesses things with such poetry, it breaks your heart.

And what is a pain, is, well, you know I have been reading the reviews that Gramophone gave Pennario down through the 1950s. And I am reading the New York Times' reviews, too. Both these publications, Gramophone in particular, are always comparing Pennario with Lipatti, and finding Pennario wanting. It gets like this kind of whine. And all I can think is that it was because Lipatti was dead. He died young, in 1950. He was only 31. Which was a terrible tragedy, and so critics kept saying, well, Lipatti played this, Lipatti played that, Lipatti is gone, no one can be like Lipatti.

Imagine that, being up against this fabled dead person. It is like "Rebecca." Fie on these critics. Fie!

Here is a picture of Dinu Lipatti.

C'mon, people, we all know this waltz. You be the critic. Listen to both of them, say what you think.

Here is Lipatti's take on Brahms' famous little waltz. Now that I listen to it again, I think it may have been speeded up a little. It sounds as if it is a whole tone high. But still.

Here is Pennario's. He is playing on two pianos, too. Keep that in mind. He recorded one part, and then did the other part over it. You would think that would be more cumbersome and mechanical. But he makes it work! His playing has such emotion, such a wonderful direct quality. By the way this clip includes a number of waltzes. The waltz we are talking about is the first. The other waltzes he plays are also off the charts. They are vigorous and magnificent.

Which of these two pianists hears more in this piece?

I ask you.


  1. You ask me? OK, let's look at the records (ha, ha).
    1. You are right. The Lipatti plays back a half-step sharp.
    2. A pianist named Ilona Eibenschuetz recorded this waltz around 1902. Eibenschuetz was a pupil of Clara Schumann. She knew Brahms and Brahms admired her playing enough to entrust her with premiering one of the sets of his late piano pieces. She plays the waltz in moderate dance tempo, close to Lipatti's approach. The effect is lilting and ravishing even through the primitive sound.
    3. I don't think either pianist hears more in the piece. They just hear it differently. Both performances are wonderful and I don't think either violates the spirit of the music.
    Conclusion: This wimpy answer proves that I'd make a terrible critic and a lousy disciple!

  2. Prof G has a tin ear. No wonder you've fallen in love with LP.

  3. You have something against the legacy of Lipatti. It shows in the way you write about him. To chose a piece like this Brahms waltz to compare is ridiculous. No pianist can stand up to scrutiny on every note. Look at Horowitz, he fails miserably in the basic repertoire.

    Lipatti's legacy has nothing to do with dying at a young age. I don't want to take anything away from Pennario and I did not even bother to compare the recordings. If I were to conclude that Pennario bests Lipatti in any way, than he might as well best the entire lot of pianists in the 20th century because that is what would be my conclusion. Is that your conclusion then?

  4. Odin, thanks for your comment! It is a pleasure to hear from the king of the gods, not to mention someone so obviously into classical piano.

    You are right in that I was grinding an ax when I wrote this post. Heck, I admitted it. I still go looking for it once in a while so I can laugh. That picture up at the top still cracks me up. This Web log kind of kids around a lot, just so you know.

    But I was serious on certain levels. No. 1, it is not ridiculous to compare a couple of pianists on the strength of a simple Brahms waltz. First of all it's a piece I love. I just happened to choose it. And what a pianist does with a simple warhorse says a lot about him. I felt Pennario brought out the beauty, the wistfulness of the waltz better than Lipatti did -- even though he was playing a four-hand version with himself, which you would think would have bogged him down.

    Secondly, about what you said about the idea of Pennario besting Lipatti in any way ... yes, I do place Leonard Pennario among the top greats of the 20th century. I do think, even though it's fun to kick around individual pieces, that it's probably pointless to try to decide whether he is better than Lipatti because when you get up to that echelon, it becomes like comparing apples and oranges. But it is frustrating how when a pianist dies tragically young, as Lipatti did, there are those who deify him to the point of ignoring others' contributions. Maybe I should write a follow-up post! You have gotten me on a roll here.

    Thanks for the nice comment! Any time you want to lock horns again, I am ready.

  5. It is hard to disagree with a lot of what you say.

    However....... while being right I think that that the finger should be pointed in different direction.
    Are Mozart, Schubert, William Kapell, Jean Marie Leclair, Michael Rabin, Elvis, over rated? A difficult question. All died young, how young is not important. Tragically, debatable? Overrated, absolutely not.

    Where does Lipatti fit? In my opinion (and not alone) the greatest pianist of the century, based on his recordings. I have to say that I wrote this blog entry while listening to various recordings of Pennario provided by you.
    I refuse to rate Pennario, especially on Chopin which is incredibly hard to play (well). Just keep this in mind, Horowitz gets a failing grade.

    Is not Horowitz where your finger should be pointed to? For every mention of Lipatti there are a hundred mentions of Horowitz. But Lipatti's recordings are benchmarks while Horowitz is a circus side show. Ok, he had some incredible Scarlatti, Scriabin and Schumann but that's about it.

    Horowitz fans are militant. Just look at YouTube; thousands of comments praising a Horowitz performance in his eighties. It is almost a miracle that anyone is aware of Lipatti, and a good thing to or else the bar would have to be lowered.

    Again, I don't want to take anything away from Pennario, but Lipatti is not in a class, he is above all classes. He is above the Richter, Gilels, Lupu class. BTW, I am an incredible fan of Lupu. He is above the Horowitz, Rubenstein, etc... class. He is pure music.

    Can you deal with it?