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Music

Mozart and the master

Two musical prodigies, two centuries apart. One sublime affinity.

By JOHN FLEMING
Published November 26, 2006


At his home in Land O’Lakes, retired FSU professor Leonidas Lipovetsky has a 7-foot grand piano. “Intellectually, now that I have lived longer, the way I can say the phrasing is different from when I was young,’’ says the 69-year-old.
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[Times photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes]
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"Sonata in D Major K.V. 311 W.A. Mozart, Alegro con Spirito" by Leonidas Lipovetsky.
Leonidas Lipovtsky in Moscow, 1993 recording.

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[Times photo: Martha Rial ]
Leonidas Lipovetsky performs for students at Blake High School in Tampa earlier this month. As a Juilliard student in the 1960s, he studied under a legendary Russian pedagogue who also taught Van Cliburn.

Pianist Leonidas Lipovetsky figures that he was almost literally born to play Mozart. When he was a baby in Montevideo, Uruguay, his mother would sing Mozart arias to him. "When I walked out of the crib, I went to the piano. It was like learning to talk," he said one recent morning at his house in Land O'Lakes. At 4, he played the first movement of Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major. "I will never forget that," he said. Lipovetsky is 69 now and retired from a 35-year career teaching piano at Florida State University. Two years ago, he and his wife, Astrid, moved from Tallahassee to a gated subdivision where they are near his mother, who is 91 and lives in Lutz, and a daughter in Tampa.

Throughout his tenure at FSU, Lipovetsky had a substantial concert career that included tours with symphony orchestras all over the world and appearances on major piano recital series and recordings. Lately, he has been giving recitals in the Tampa Bay area to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth.

On the last Sunday of October, Lipovetsky embarked on an artistic marathon to play all 18 of the Mozart piano sonatas in five concerts at five venues. He started with a recital at the Music Gallery, a Steinway & Sons piano dealer in Clearwater that organized the project, and went on to perform at churches in St. Petersburg and Clearwater and at Blake High School in Tampa.

Friday night, Lipovetsky will play his fifth and final concert of Mozart sonatas at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in Tampa. The program includes the final work in the cycle, Sonata No. 18 in D major, as well as the most famous, Sonata No. 14 in C minor, which winds up with the lively Rondo Alla Turca.

Russian ingenuity

At Lipovetsky's third concert, on a Sunday afternoon at First United Methodist Church in Clearwater, he played four early sonatas (Nos. 2, 4, 6 and 7), all composed by Mozart at 21 or younger.

"I would call this almost a symphonic program," Lipovetsky told the audience of about 100 before sitting down at the 11-foot Steinway grand. "Nos. 2 and 4 especially have a very large scope."

Dapper in a dark suit and silver tie, he dashed off the two-hour program in a forceful but flowing style. The performance was full of lovely touches, such as the limpid, expressive adagio of Sonata No. 2, or the deft bass figure that set off fleet, fanciful runs in the middle movement of the sixth sonata, or the sheer sense of fun in the allegro that opens Sonata No. 7. For all the daunting technique, his playing had a conversational quality.

Lipovetsky, whose grandparents emigrated from Russia to South America in 1912, shares the Slavic pedigree that produced many brilliant pianists in the 20th century, from Sergei Rachmaninoff to Sviatoslov Richter, Vladimir Horowitz to Emil Gilels. As a student at the Juilliard School in New York in the 1960s, he studied under legendary Russian pedagogue Rosina Lhevinne, who also taught Van Cliburn.

"It's a malediction you get from birth," Lipovestsky said, laughing, when asked about Russians and piano virtuosity.

"The Russians discovered the real way of utilizing all the possibilities of the piano," he said. "For instance, the motions of the wrist. If you look at Germanic playing, the wrist is locked, and the result is monotonous; the production of tone is lousy, and the shape and direction of the phrasing is not there. The utilization of the wrist, the round motions, have to be in synch with the shape of the sound and the meaning of the phrases."

Playing with passion

Lipovetsky readily acknowledged that his playing of Mozart was not flawless from a textbook point of view. In the Sunday recital, he would drop the occasional note, and sometimes the musical line got a bit ragged, but the essence of the sonata was always crystal clear.

Several times during the interview at his house, which features a 7-foot grand in the music room just off the swimming pool, he mentioned the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who never sacrificed meaning for the sake of pure virtuosity.

"I never heard Rubinstein play a recital that was perfect," he said. "Then you hear some pianists who play note-perfect, every little dot is there, but you fall asleep. Which would you prefer?"

The Mozart piano sonatas may not be the pinnacle of the repertoire - that would be Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas - but they still represent an awesome challenge.

"The problem with Mozart is that there are fewer notes," Lipovetsky said. "When you play Tchaikovsky, when you play Schumann, you have a lot of notes. You can get lost in the torrent of sound. With Mozart, there is a simple singing line with a very succinct accompaniment. If you don't say that singing line in a way that is enticing, forget it."

Lipovetsky has played the complete Mozart sonata cycle several times before. He did it at FSU in 1991 and 1992 for the 200th anniversary of the composer's death. From a technical standpoint, he does not think his playing has changed over the years.

"I never have problems with these" - he held up his hands - "with the fingers, with the hands, with the machine," he said. "Intellectually, now that I have lived longer, the way I can say the phrasing is different from when I was young."

At FSU, Lipovetsky was part of a fine piano tradition exemplified by Erno Dohnanyi, the great Hungarian composer and pianist, who taught at the school of music until his death in 1960.

"I heard tapes of Dohnanyi from when he played at the university," he said. "He was a tremendous pianist. And not just a pianist; he was a musician. It was not the actual playing of the notes, but it was the meaning of the phrasing. To me, that is what this is all about. The actual playing of the notes is something that you learn. The other thing is something that you say. It's the depth of the concept that matters."

One of Lipovetsky's most renowned students in Tallahassee was Marcus Roberts, the blind jazz pianist. "He was four years with me, studying one Bach prelude and fugue a week, learning it from scratch from braille," he said. "He developed good classical technique."

Congenital genius

At his house that morning, Lipovetsky played some Mozart, much of the time with his black Lab, Gabrielle, lying on the wood floor beneath the piano. He ranged widely among movements from the sonatas, an incredible swath of music. The pianist shook his head at the richness of it all - and the marvel of Mozart.

"It is a strange thing," he said. "It's like he was remembering music from another life, because it just flowed out of him. He composed some of these sonatas in one day. There are no corrections in the original manuscripts."

At one point, Lipovetsky played the Mozart he first played so many years ago in Uruguay, the opening allegro from Sonata No. 16.

"Whenever I play it now, I get a little nervous," he said, a startling admission from such an unflappable performer. "I never get nervous, but with that one I get nervous. I always think that I will never play as well as I did when I was 4."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com

 

Fast facts

If you go

Pianist Leonidas Lipovetsky plays Mozart sonatas at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church, 3501 San Jose St., Tampa. $10. 813 253-6047.

[Last modified November 24, 2006, 11:42:57]


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