Whenever Maria Tipo performs in the United States, people always come backstage to ask her to autograph one of her old, out-of-print recordings.
"Sometimes I think my old records are almost like porno films," says the Italian pianist, laughing at the idea.
A glance at the record covers -- with their photographs of the 24-year-old, sultry blond beauty who stares out from them -- suggests why. But Tipo's records are collector's items because they contain performances that have an allure similar to what the camera captured: sensuous playing coupled to virtuosity, imagination and intellect of an extraordinary order.
At 61, Maria Tipo is still beautiful and (to judge by her recent records) her playing is more intriguing, daring and intellectually satisfying than ever. For many European music lovers, her interpretations of Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin and Schumann have the status of holy writ. But in our country -- except to the aficionados who have made her a cult figure -- she is almost unknown. Although Tipo created a stir here in the 1950s, she was absent from American concert halls between 1962 and 1991 -- when Boston Symphony music director Seiji Ozawa persuaded her to return.
Why did Tipo, who will give a recital Friday evening at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, stay away so long?
"During the 1950s when I first came to America, it took so long to travel by train and boat that you needed 50 to 60 concerts to justify a tour," Tipo says. "It was exhausting; it meant there was no time for a normal life."
Another reason was the death in the early 1970s of her American manager, the impresario Sol Hurok, which left her without important American contacts. "I got proposals," Tipo says. "But what I heard was, 'People don't know you anymore -- you have to start from zero.' I thought, 'This is ridiculous -- I'm at a high level of my career.' "
By the middle 1970s, she had long been a favorite of such conductors as Karajan, Giulini and Abbado, and she had begun making records again. But she hadn't been able to achieve the "normal" life she wanted.
A normal life
In the early '60s, she married a guitarist and in 1965 gave birth to her only child, Alina, now the first violinist of the Quartetto di Fiesole.
"There are certain things about rearing children and housekeeping that men never seem to understand," she says. "I would come home after spending a whole day playing and teaching and I'd have the house to clean, my baby to care for and a meal to cook for my husband."
That marriage ended after 10 years. A few years later, she married again -- this time to a pianist.
"The problem was that his career was not as successful as mine and he had an inferiority complex about it," Tipo says. "Finally, I said, 'Look, you're not happy -- go.' It was extremely difficult, but I had enough force of will and talent to survive."
Her talent had been nurtured carefully by her father, a music-loving university professor of mathematics, and by her mother, who had been a student of the legendary Feruccio Busoni and who was to be Tipo's only piano teacher.
"The approach of Busoni dominated her teaching," Tipo says. "She always stressed the orchestral possibilities of the piano -- that it just wasn't a percussive instrument. But she also made me aware that beautiful sound wasn't enough; that you must serve music, not just the ear."
How well she learned to serve music can be gauged by comparingher recordings of Scarlatti with those of Vladimir Horowitz. Her sunlit clarity, her ability to spin out a legato line and her rhythmic verve make his performances, with their arbitrary dynamics and rhythmic liberties, sound mannered. Like Tipo, Scarlatti was a Neopolitan, but he wrote his great keyboard music in Spain; her performances conjure up a singing voice accompanied by guitar and castanets.
That vocal quality also characterizes her Bach performances, attacked by some American critics as anachronistically "romantic."
Bach, like Scarlatti, did not, of course, write for the piano but for the harpsichord -- 150 years before the bigger instrument was perfected. When most pianists play Bach they sound almost apologetic. There is the "I really shouldn't be doing this" approach, with its attempt to emulate the harpsichord, using no pedal, a detached touch and minimal dynamic shading. Then there is the slightly more pianistic "I know this isn't piano music, but since I am playing it on a piano I will try to make it like an 18th-century work" approach.
Compared with such "authentic" approaches to Bach's music, Tipo's -- heard most recently on two EMI discs of the composer's six partitas -- can be called "realistic." Listening to Tipo play Bach suggests that she asked herself, "If this was written for the piano, how would you play it?"
Her answer to that question results in performances of Bach's works that -- while they have authentic baroque feeling -- makes them sound like the best piano music ever written in the 18th century.
"We don't need to pretend we're playing Bach on a harpsichord -- we have enough of that already," Tipo says. "When you transport his music to the piano, you have an incredible instrument with many voices. So when I play Bach, I think of many voices -- particularly the human voice, but also the many other instruments he wrote for."
Back in America
Tipo's American career, after its long winter sojourn, has begun to blossom. This season she's appearing in the major recital series of Boston, Montreal, Chicago and San Francisco. Next year, she'll be making concerto debuts with the San Francisco Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra and will make her fifth appearance in three years with the Boston Symphony, which will showcase the pianist in two concerts at New York's Carnegie Hall. There are even plans to reissue those rare 1950s recordings she's always being asked to autograph.
"Now I'm divorced, my daughter no longer needs me and I'm a free woman," Tipo says. "I'm finally at the point of my life where I can do what I want to do."