Igor Kipnis, Dead at 71
By Wes Phillips [From Stereophile Magazine]
February 3, 2002 — Igor Kipnis, virtuosic harpsichordist, prolific critic, and esteemed teacher died January 23. He was 71. According to his managing agency, Marilyn Gilbert Artists Management of Toronto, he had been suffering from cancer.
Kipnis, the son of Metropolitan Opera bass Alexander Kipnis, was born on September 27, 1930 in Berlin, where his father was singing with the Berlin State Opera. Although Jewish, the elder Kipnis was popular in Germany during Nazism's rise to prominence. Employing the stratagem of a vocal injury, the elder Kipnis fled Germany for Austria. When the Nazis annexed that country, the family was touring Australia. They moved to the US just prior to the country's entrance into WWII.
As a young man, Igor Kipnis was an enthusiastic record collector. "The family phonograph loomed large in my early years," he said. His passion for the harpsichord came about, in fact, as a result of his record collecting. Having purchased Edwin Fischer's epochal recording of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, he was irritated to discover it contained, as "filler," Wanda Landowska's harpsichord performance of the composer's second English suite. "As it turned out," Mr. Kipnis later reported, "this apparent rip-off soon fascinated me more than any of the many Bach piano discs I had, and I longed to try a harpsichord in the flesh sometime."
He fulfilled that fantasy at college—Harvard, where he majored in social relations. In 1957, while he was employed at Westminster Records, where he was in charge of covers and liner notes, his parents presented him with a small harpsichord they had obtained in Europe.
Kipnis essentially taught himself to play the harpsichord and developed many of his signature techniques on his own. He "traded" lessons with Fernando Valenti, another early champion of the instrument, exchanging lessons for meals cooked by Kipnis' wife, Judith Robison.
According to Mr. Kipnis, his father was his major musical influence. He learned a huge repertory accompanying his father's students on the piano. Even more important than this exposure to the literature, he claimed, was the way it taught him the importance of a singing line. His father also "advised me to talk to audiences in my concerts, just as he had done so often in his American tours."
Mr. Kipnis made his debut in 1959 and made a living as the "go to" continuo harpsichordist for a variety of New York–based Baroque and Renaissance performance ensembles. It was at this time that he began writing criticism professionally—another vocation he continued to practice over the years, as a music critic and contributing editor for The New York Herald Tribune, Stereo Review, Stereophile, and Fi.
Mr. Kipnis' records were well-received by the public and critics alike. He recorded over 80 albums for CBS, Angel, Fontana, and Arabesque. His approach was stylish and intimate, almost conversational, and he knew how to get the most out of his instrument's limited dynamic range. "The harpsichord surprises people," he said. "They expect it to be wearing a wig and belonging in somebody's attic. I try to bring it out of the attic." He once referred to himself as "your basic cocktail harpsichordist," because he would perform in unstuffy venues, such as college cafeterias, using amplification while maintaining a running commentary.
He claimed one of his harpsichords—a French-style instrument he liked to pack into his van and tour with—had more miles on it than most cars.
In later years, he also performed on clavichord and fortepiano—and even the contemporary piano. In 1995 he formed a duo with Karen Kushner, playing four-handed music in concerts and recitals. In 1971 he took a fulltime faculty position at Fairfield University in Connecticut, cutting back on his touring schedule. He was president and artistic director of the Friends of Music of Fairfield County for five years, artistic director of the Connecticut Early Music Festival for 13 years, as well as head of Tanglewood's Baroque department. He also taught at Harvard, the Peabody Institute, and the Mannes School of Music, among other educational institutions.
Mr. Kipnis is survived by a son, Jeremy, a highly regarded recording engineer, and a world that, in no small part because of his life's work, no longer finds the harpsichord a curiosity, but rather a valued voice in the authentic and serious recreation of Baroque and Renaissance music.
[This biography of Alexander Kipnis was prepared for my article Massenet, Mary Garden, and the Chicago Opera 1910-1932.]
Alexander Kipnis (February 13 [O.S. February 1] 1891 – May 14, 1978) was a Russian-born operatic bass. Having initially established his artistic reputation in Europe, Kipnis became an American citizen in 1931, following his marriage to an American. He appeared often at the Chicago Opera before making his début at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1940.
Aleksandr Kipnis was born in Zhytomyr, the capital of the Volhynian Governorate, in the Russian Empire (now Ukraine). His impoverished family of seven lived in a Jewish ghetto. After his father died, when he was aged 12, he helped support the family as a carpenter's apprentice and by singing soprano in local synagogues and in Bessarabia (now Moldova) until his voice changed. As a teenager he took part in a Yiddish theatrical group, until he entered the Warsaw Conservatory at age 19. The conservatory did not require a high-school diploma. His education included the study of the trombone, double bass and conducting. All the while he continued to sing in synagogues. On the recommendation of the choirmaster, he traveled to Berlin and studied voice with Ernst Grenzebach who was also a teacher of Lauritz Melchior, Meta Seinemeyer, and Max Lorenz. At the same time he sang second bass in Monti's Operetta Theater.
When the First World War started, Kipnis was interned as an alien in a German holding camp. While singing to himself he was overheard by an army captain whose brother was general manager of the Wiesbaden Opera. Kipnis was released from custody and he was engaged by the Hamburg Opera. He made his operatic debut in 1915, singing three Johann Strauss songs as a "guest" in the party scene of the operetta Die Fledermaus. In 1917, he moved to the Wiesbaden Opera, having gained invaluable stage experience. He sang in more than 300 performances at Wiesbaden until 1922, when he joined the Berlin Staatsoper.
The following year Kipnis visited the United States with a touring Wagnerian company. For nine seasons, between 1923 and 1932, he was on the roster of the Chicago Civic Opera. In 1927, at the Bayreuth Festival, he appeared as Gurnemanz in Wagner's Parsifal under Karl Muck and recorded the Good Friday Music under Siegfried Wagner. (A purported live performance recording in 1933 under Richard Strauss has been generally discounted.) He also appeared at the Salzburg Festival.
Kipnis was under contract with the Berlin Opera until 1935, when he was able to break his contract and flee Nazi Germany. He appeared for three seasons as a guest performer with the Vienna State Opera in 1936-1938. Just after the Anschluss he left Europe and settled permanently in the United States. By the time he was finally signed by the Metropolitan in 1940 he had appeared in most of the world's major opera houses. In addition to those European and American theatres already mentione, he was heard at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, (in 1927 and 1929–1935), and also at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires (1926–1936).
Kipnis was regarded throughout the inter-war years as being one of the greatest basses in the world. He was praised for the beauty of his smooth and mellow voice and the excellence of his musicianship. As befitted his status, he was invited to appear with the top conductors of his day. He retired from the Met in 1946. He made his last concert appearance in 1951. Since his debut in 1915, he had sung at least 108 roles, often in more than one language, and his performances in opera and oratorio numbered more than 1600. He died in Westport, Connecticut in 1978, aged 87.
Kipnis' son Igor Kipnis (1930–2002) was a celebrated harpsichordist. Following in similar creative footsteps, Kipnis's grandson, Jeremy R. Kipnis (born 1965), has become known as a photographer, record producer, film director, and recently creator of The Kipnis Studio Standard - The 21st Century Ultimate Screening Room Design, an evolution of George Lucas's and Tom Holman's THX Motion Picture & Sound Standards.
“My father was born into a pitifully poor family in the Ukraine and had little going for him as a young boy except for a rather sweet soprano voice. One day, a visiting cantor from Bessarabia heard the lad singing in the local synagogue choir and persuaded my father’s mother, with the promise of some payment, to let him take the child back to his own synagogue to sing. During this period of a few years, my father was befriended by one of the choir’s male singers. The town of Novybug, with its largely unpaved streets, had particularly muddy paths when the post-winter thaws came and whenever it rained. In exchange for singing lessons and the rudiments of reading music, my father would scrupulously scrub the rubber boots of the older singer. One of the pieces the older man introduced him to was “Der Leiermann,” the haunting final song from Schubert’s Winterreise. My father was affected by the sad, almost frozen tune of the organ grinder, and in later life he often related how, as a young boy, he loved songs in minor keys and could not understand why anyone should ever want to write in the major mode.” (Igor Kipnis)
This interview was recorded in Evanston, IL, on April 5, 2001.
Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNUR one year later.
This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2010.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here. To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.
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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.