(Piano Magazine, May/June 2002)

Igor Kipnis was a rare musicians who provided unique insight into the nature of music. The excitement and expressive quality of his playing were enhanced by a serious examination of the composer’s notation and ways to interpret it. In the music of the supreme Bach, he was a supreme interpreter.
His virtuosity and musicianship were amazing from a man who spent his twenties working for a record company (Westminster), mostly designing jackets. Although he studied music, and got harpsichord lessons from the legendary Fernando Valenti, he did not make his debut until 1959, when he was almost 30.
I heard that debut recital, a concert which was broadcast over WNYC-FM. (The program was duplicated on his debut recording, made in 1962, now available as VAI Audio VAIA 1185.) It already had the best qualities of his mature playing, particularly his profuse and convincing use of embellishments in the repeats of baroque music. As brilliant as Handel’s “Harmonious Blacksmith” Variations had sounded to me in the past, they were still more brilliant as he added fill-ins and embellishments to his repeats. Also on that program was another piece that became one of his trademarks, the brilliant Soler Fandango, played with a kind of abandon that I’ve never heard in that music from anyone else.
Although he brought his unique perceptions to everything he played, it may be that Igor‘s greatest contribution was towards our appreciation of the keyboard music of Bach. That first recital and recording were half Bach, and particularly in the Sixth French Suite you can hear the qualities that made Igor‘s Bach so valuable. In his repeats, his redecoration of the music is so intelligent and profound that it changes our perspective on what we have just heard. Certainly that was the original reason for writing those repeat signs, making the same music sound like something new. This point has now become such a part of our musical consciousness that we hear it even in the playing of pianists such as Andras Schiff and Vladimir Feltsman. In 1959, though, it was almost a radical idea.
Many of Igor‘s best recordings are out of print, but there are some fortunate survivors and recent reissues. Among these, the most revelatory are Bach recordings made for EMI in the 1970s. The six Bach Partitas, now on Seraphim 73700 and 74007, show not only the brilliance of his technique and musicianship, but also that ability to re-express the music through authentically styled variations of the actual notes in repeated sections. The change of perspective was so important to Igor that in the Sarabandes, which are elaborately embellished in Bach’s original, he played the music in a simplified version the first time through, using Bach’s version as the repeat.
He did the same thing with the opening theme of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, now available as Seraphim 74501 along with three other major Bach works. He plays the opening theme in a stripped-down version. This simplified theme is a fine basis for the variations to follow. When the opening theme returns at the end of the piece, he plays Bach’s original version and it sounds like yet another magnificent variation on the idea we first heard at the beginning. With all the repeats taken, this performance lasts just a bit too long for a single CD. (EMI made its break at the exact point where Igor sometimes took an intermission during live performances). But when it is over, we have taken a memorable journey through one of the most profound experiences in all of music, led by a guide who shares with us the excitement of his continuing discoveries.
It was our great loss that his re-recording of the “Goldberg” Variations, made for the short-lived Epiphany label, was never published. And what a Well-Tempered Clavier he could have given us, if he’d only had the opportunity! His Scarlatti recordings (Seraphim 74281 and Chesky CD 75) are equally revelatory and thrilling, as was the Handel program once available on Nonesuch 79037-2.
Although he was best known as a performer on the harpsichord, Igor‘s musical interests were not limited to baroque music. As a player, he welcomed the stimulation of contemporary music. His recording of Falla’s Concerto, conducted by Pierre Boulez, is as crisp and stinging as one might ever want to hear. His last, unfulfilled, project was to give the world premiere of a new Harpsichord Concerto by Philip Glass! He also recorded several contemporary harpsichord works, some written for him.
He owned an authentic 1793 fortepiano, which he took on tour for performances and used for two magnificent solo recordings, one of Mozart’s music (Music & Arts CD 660) and one of Beethoven’s (Epiphany EP 1). Even in Beethoven he found the opportunity for embellishment, in the repeats of the rondo theme in the finale of the “Patheique” Sonata. It’s a great pity that both of these recordings are now unavailable.
As readers of his many record reviews knew, Igor was also a keen lover of romantic piano music and performance. I still remember his delight when I found for him the last Benno Moiseiwitsch recording he needed to complete his collection. On a visit to his home in Connecticut, I was treated to a thrilling new recording of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne he insisted I hear. (Obviously he was no Bach purist!) It was the playing of Dmitri Paperno, a pianist we both admired greatly. As the son of a legendary singer, Alexander Kipnis, Igor also had a keen appreciation of great singing. Sadly, his planned biography of his father was never completed.
Eventually, his reviewing brought him to playing on the modern piano, something he never did in public until his sixties. He admired a superb recording of Chopin Mazurkas by the pianist Karen Kushner, then met her, and played duets with her for their private pleasure. Soon they became a touring ensemble, and with Kushner he made his only recordings on the modern piano. Ironically, his last performances were three concerts he gave in the Fall of 2001 which were his only public solo concerts on the modern piano. I had the great good fortune to hear one of these, at New York’s Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Although he was seriously ill, he played with his usual expressive intelligence and insight. A listener unfamiliar with his career would never have known it was not his usual instrument. The program included Dussek’s “Sorrows of Marie Antoinette,” a piece he had played at his debut.
I got to see other sides of Igor’s expertise when, in 1999, WMHT and I decided to co-produce a CD of live performances by the Kipnis-Kushner Duo. Igor acquired and selected the tapes, mastered them onto CD himself, and wrote the program notes, all within two months. It included such uncharacteristic Igor Kipnis repertoire as music of Ravel, Brahms, and even George Gershwin. The resulting disc (Parnassus PACD 96030) is one I am extremely proud to have published. A studio recording of the Duo has also appeared on the Palatine label.
Igor‘s interests extended well beyond the field of music. He took quickly to the computer and became an expert and a net-head. Although he hadd the usually-appalling habit of forwarding internet humor to his correspondents, you could always look forward to an e-mail from Igor knowing it would never be dumb. Once he sent out a brief animated cartoon, which took nearly an hour for my own less-than-rapid system to download. Although I complained to him about it, the little cartoon was almost worth the trouble. He was also very interested in movies, and built up a substantial collection of his favorites on videotape. He had searched for years for Orson Welles’ “Othello,” and called to tell me how delighted he was when he finally found a copy, thanks in part to a tip I had provided. He even acted in one semi-professional film, performing the role of a villain who played the harpsichord. I saw it once and he was pretty convincing.
Since his death, friends and colleagues have been expressing their praise for Igor as a musician and as a raconteur. Members of his inner circle of friends remember the extra time they would set aside for dinners with Igor, just to make sure they could hear all the stories they knew he would tell. But as wonderful a person as he was, I will remember him most as a musician who could perform familiar works in a way that always made them seem new, that captured the thrill of discovery as if the music had just been written and wasn’t even quite dry on the page yet. The career of Igor Kipnis may be over, but for those who can still listen to his recordings, these discoveries will continue. –Piano Magazine, May/June 2002

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