Igor Kipnis, Dead at 71
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.