David Patrick Stearns, Inquirer Music Critc
The sitting room is meticulously appointed, with the last two issues of the New York Review of Books neatly folded on the end table. In the kitchen, not a stray crumb is to be seen.
But Seymour Lipkin’s piano room looks like the aftermath of an earthquake. Fallen stacks of scores, no doubt containing a large slice of western classical music, are still almost as tall as the diminutive pianst. At the top of a pile sits Bach’s mighty Well Tempered Clavier Book II, on which he’s working in his 85th year.
“But he knows where everything is,” says his Juilliard School of Music student, Ye Kwon Sun Woo, in reassuring tones.
Good for everybody, because Lipkin, apart from his teaching duties both at the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute, has serious work ahead of him. Lipkin, 84, may be one of the oldest pianists in history to program Beethoven’s complex, gargantuan Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”, which concludes his upcoming Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concert. The piece ends in a fugue that seems to require three extra hands. Lipkin is sure that his own pair will do fine.
“I don’t question why,” he says at his Upper West Side studio. “The fingers seem to be moving perfectly well, as far as I can tell, and in a way, better. The discipline and efficiency gets better as you go along.”
Would he consider some virtuoso fingerbuster such as Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz? “Why not?” he says. But he wouldn’t choose to.
Many pianists play beautifully at an advanced age, such as one of Lipkin’s teachers, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who gave concerts at age 100. However, nearly all senior pianists adjust their repertoire – the physically-demanding Hammerklavier often being put aside in late middle age just as the intellectually demanding piece starts making sense.
Lipkin, though, thinks he can improve over the recording he made roughly a decade ago. “My perception of the thought processs has deepened. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what he was doing! I see!’ Before, you just sort of play it, relying on your instincts. The interior is like a paragraph in which every word carries multiple meanings but fit into the drama.”