The Story Behind Arguably the Greatest Recording Ever Made

One of the greatest pianists who ever lived, Dinu Lipatti, was born 100 years ago yesterday, on March 19, 1917. Lipatti was a child prodigy, a virtuoso pianist and a Romanian who died at 33, just 15 years after his career began. Of course there are many child prodigies who become virtuoso pianists; a number of them have died young, and no doubt there are several who came from Romania. What sets Lipatti apart is that he gave the single greatest piano performance ever recorded.

In 1641, a virtuoso violinist named Johann Schop wrote a tune called “Werde munter, mein gemüte”—”be cheerful, my love.” Eighty years later, in 1723, Bach heard it, liked it, and rewrote it as his 32nd cantata, “Herz und mund und tat und leben”—”Heart and mouth and deed and life.” Herz und mund und tat und leben is famous for its final movement, one of the two or three most famous songs ever written, generally known by the English title, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

In the same way Shakespeare borrowed a story called “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet,” Bach took Schop’s (already very pretty) melody and turned it into something so extraordinarily beautiful that every last person in the Western world loves it. But while Bach’s Jesu was an upbeat, cheerful, joyful choral piece with an accompanying recitative lyric, the version that everyone knows and loves is slow and poignant. In fact, in its original springy style, you can almost miss its intense beauty. It’s possible Bach did—it was one of about 30 cantatas he wrote in 1723, and Bach didn’t always take his cantatas too seriously. (A few years after Jesu, Bach wrote his cantata “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht,”—”Shut up, stop chattering,” about a girl who drinks too much coffee and her father who just doesn’t understand. Bach directed its performance in one of his favorite Leipzig haunts, Zimmermann’s Coffee House.)

Beautiful as it was in 1723, Jesu didn’t reach peak form for another 200 years, until 1926, when Myra Hess got her hands on it. Miss Hess was a British pianist, a virtuoso who famously helped keep London’s spirits up during the blitz by arranging a series of lunchtime concerts in the National Gallery. She began the concerts in 1940; they became so popular they continued the duration of the war, totaling more than 2,000 performances, of which she personally played 150. King George was so fond of them that he made her Dame Myra Hess. Nonetheless, Dame Myra’s greatest contribution to art was her still-famous arrangement of Jesu for solo piano.

The 1926 Hess Transcription was a complete solo rendering of a piece everyone loved that had previously required a trumpet, oboe, violin, viola, and continuo to play properly. It spread across Europe faster than the Spanish Flu. It became the favorite of, among many others, the French composer, theorist, and critic Paul Dukas. Dukas died on May 17, 1935. Three days later, Dukas’s student Dinu Lipatti made his professional debut. To honor Dukas’s memory, Lipatti opened the concert with the Hess transcription of Jesu. It was a performance of a piece that lasts just three and a half minutes, but it helped rocket Lipatti to international fame.

For the next few years, Lipatti toured Europe—to critical acclaim clouded slightly by the ethical question of his continuing to perform in Nazi occupied countries, something many of his contemporaries refused to do. (However, as both Dukas and Miss Hess were Jews, it seems unlikely that Lipatti was an anti-Semite.)

When the Soviet Union closed in on Romania, Lipatti fled to Switzerland, where symptoms of his cancer began to appear. After two years of mysterious pain and fatigue, Lipatti was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1947. Like Nazism (in so many ways), cancer was unable to stop Lipatti from performing.

By 1950, Lipatti was seriously ill, but still unwilling to give up music. On September 16, 1950, he gave a concert in Besançon, France, not far from Geneva. The concert was recorded. I suggest you listen to it.

It opens with Bach’s first partita, in B-Flat major. Lipatti’s play is stunningly crisp and energetic—it is genuinely hard, listening to it, to imagine how sick he was at the time. Then comes Mozart’s piano sonata number 8 (everyone’s favorite); which is played with equal vim (and at the right tempo; not too fast, the way it’s too often performed).

After that come two of Schubert’s impromptus—first number 3, then number 2. Schubert’s third impromptu is one of the most powerful short pieces ever written. You can hear Lipatti start to tire as he plays it; a heartbreakingly beautiful piece becomes more heartbreaking. The transition to the much brighter second impromptu is jarring, which is no doubt what Lipatti intended. Lipatti played things in the order he thought they ought to be played: From the impromptus, he moved on to 12 of Chopin’s waltzes, starting with #5, ending with #1.

Chopin’s Waltz #1 is the first of Chopin’s four “Grandes Valses Brillantes” — the “light, bright waltzes.” It is as sprightly a piece of music as has ever been written. As Lipatti plays the last flourish of notes, you can feel his sapped energy in the music. As dryly amusing as it would have been to conclude with waltz #1, Lipatti intended to play on. But he was too exhausted to continue.

Lipatti apologized to the audience. The rest of the recital would have to be cancelled. As an apology, Lipatti offered one final piece—Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, the piece that had launched his career.

When Lipatti told the audience he couldn’t go on, the sound engineer shut off the recording. What might have proved to be the greatest concert recording in history was decapitated. So instead, you have to turn to Lipatti’s studio recording of the piece, made just a few weeks earlier.

This is the recording that might be the greatest ever made. The most feeling possible performance of one of the most deeply felt songs ever written. Lipatti knew he would be dead soon. He wanted to get the piece down on wax while he still could. It doesn’t bear describing. You have to listen yourself.

After Lipatti finished the substitute Jesu, he left the stage, and never performed again. Less than three months later he was dead. But at age 100, his reputation endures.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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