Those whom the gods love die young. Within the space of not even a decade in the immediate postwar era, the world was robbed of some of the greatest talent imaginable: Ginette Niveu, Kathleen Ferrier, Guido Cantelli, Dennis Brain and, at the age of just 33, the Romanian pianist and composer Dinu Lipatti. How good it was to find the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra honouring the centenary of his birth in this concert with a rarely performed piece by the pianist-composer himself, his Concertino in Classical Style, conducted by his compatriot Cristian Mandeal, and with his fellow Romanian Alexandra Dăriescu as soloist.

Alexandra Dăriescu
© Adrian Stoicoviciu

It was a kind of triple commemoration too, as H.E. the Romanian Ambassador underlined in his pre-concert address, with Romania’s National Day falling on 1 December and the centennial celebrations for the foundation of the modern state just weeks away. So the choice of curtain-raiser was entirely appropriate, a piece that nearly always spreads good cheer with its high spirits, the First Romanian Rhapsody by the country’s greatest musical figure (composer, conductor, violin virtuoso and teacher), George Enescu. Mandeal took a surprisingly relaxed view of the work, but there were plenty of deep, earthy sounds to savour and the dance rhythms were warmly articulated by the strings. A pity though that the last degree of total abandon, a sense that the whirling dervishes were in the room, was missing.

Dăriescu must have taken Debussy’s comment about the Grieg concerto being “pink bonbons filled with snow” to heart. This particular warhorse is often ridden like a mighty steed and treated as an excuse for displays of bravura. Not here. Dăriecsu gave a considered and thoughtful reading, with measured tempi, quite dreamy and lyrical in conception. Yet when required, as in the finale where the Lisztian qualities in the solo writing are more in evidence, she handled the thundering octaves and rapid downward scales with complete assurance, giving due attention to the marcato marking. In the first movement cadenza there was a languid calm to her playing which then gave way to cascades of notes building to a sonorous climax and underpinned by a powerful left hand, all the more satisfying for not being rushed.

Before the start of the second half the audience was treated to the screening of a short film, from the private collection of Ursula Jones (née Strebi), featuring the only known footage of Lipatti, shot during the 1947 Lucerne Festival, with a host of other great names from that illustrious postwar period. The programme notes suggested that Lipatti’s outstanding gifts as a pianist – and he made a number of quite glorious recordings – have overshadowed his compositions. On the basis of the Concertino, originally called Suite Classique and premièred in 1939, I beg to differ. Bach regularly featured in Lipatti’s recitals but I suspect he was too much in thrall to this particular composer. The first two movements, scored for a small complement of strings (here with just one double-bass), with additional light colouring provided by pairs of oboes and bassoons, are so derivative as to be close to a pastiche. It is all very easy on the ear, Bach in his most lyrical rather than overtly contrapuntal mood, and the solo pianist reduced to a role as concertante player, with endless arabesques decorating the melodic lines. If you heard nothing more than these first two movements you would be back in the 18th century. 

Then comes the surprise in the third movement: it is all highly reminiscent of the famous Litolff Scherzo (and when do we hear that composer’s Concerto symphonique no. 4 these days?). With its chugging rhythms and perky insouciance it gets much closer to the neo-classical ideas that Stravinsky was exploring contemporaneously. However, in the fourth and final movement (the entire work lasts for less than twenty minutes) we are sent back in our time machines once more, with plenty of counterpoint for the soloist and repetitive scamperings for the strings. I would be surprised if there is any change in the novelty status of this piece.

Lipatti died far too young, as did the two lovers Francesca and Paolo, condemned to languish in hell for their adulterous passions. Tchaikovsky almost made an opera out of the Dantean story, and when he composed his symphonic fantasy in 1876 he was under the influence of the Ring cycle he had just seen in Bayreuth. Mandeal’s approach was expansive and operatic in pacing, with a sensitively shaped Andante cantabile section graced by fine wind playing from the RPO. But after a weighty and anguished opening, I waited in vain for a hurricane in the making. Mandeal’s tempest was very much under control, with the pot never allowed to boil over and scald all those within close range.