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Alfred Cortot

Alfred Cortot


For more information:

  • CBC Great Pianists (biography, Real Audio profile & clips)
  • Philips Great Pianists of the Century Series (biography and selected recordings)

  • Posted to: rec.music.classical.recordings
    Subject: Alfred Cortot
    Date: Mon, 9 Oct 1995

    Richard Sauer asks:

    Several posters persuaded me to invest in Furtwaengler-money well spent. Now I wonder if someone can do the same for Cortot recordings. In the past I shied away from the Furtwaengler releases because of the Penguin Guides. The 1989 companion to the main volume often, but not always, writes about Furtwaengler: "pulls the music out of shape", "distorts" etc. Moreover Penguin's editors weigh the sonics as heavily as the performance, so many classic performances get the kiss of death- a (*). Similarly, I have flipped past Cortot discs (Pearl) because of the cost, and the suspicion (unwarranted I suspect) that Cortot wasn't all he was cracked-up to be-"willful", "distorting". I know he drops a lot of notes, but so did Schnabel. Anyway: Why Cortot? and where does one start? Schumann? Chopin? or Liszt?

    NOTE: info shamelessly stolen from liner notes and Harold Schonberg's The Great Pianists. I'm sure there are other sources, but this is being done strictly OTTOMH.

    Alfred Cortot was a consummate musician, with a remarkably broad range of tastes and affinities. He was a skillful conductor, so the stories go, and conducted a number of Paris premieres of Wagner operas. He was one of the first musicians to perform Bach with chamber orchestras; some recordings of this work exist on EMI. Cortot was also an important teacher and editor, and after all, anyone who can claim Dinu Lipatti among his proteges needs some notice! And he was a chamber musician nonpareil, playing with a style, intelligence, and sense of give-and-take that ranks him with the great chamber pianists (Horszowski, Schnabel, and R. Serkin being other examples).

    It seems to me that his shortcomings definitely do seem to come to the fore in his recordings of solo repertoire. Cortot's most important weakness was (like Schnabel) a disdain for practicing and pure technical skill, so that in many of his recordings, there is a raggedness to the playing that will not please those who require mechanical note-perfection. This is exacerbated by the fact that the recordings that capture him in his prime were made in the 1920's and '30s, when editing simply didn't exist, and later recordings capture a pianist in his 70's and 80's. The other major point to keep in mind is that while he was no Romantic-style manipulator of tempo and rhythm, he did indulge in a measure of interpretation, and was more than capable of voicing, pacing, and rubatoing (is that a word?) a piece in a way that could be considered unconventional.

    However, these manipulations were always overseen by a keen musical intelligence; the variations in interpretation were always done to point out an important part of the structure or expression of a piece, and his performances unfold with a sense of logic, almost inevitability. Moreover, if you can forgive the occasional technical slip, you will hear a golden, luminous tone that voiced chords in a way that few since can match.

    Where to start? Most will point you to his recordings of Schumann and Chopin. I'm afraid I can't speak of his Schumann personally. He did have a wonderful way with Chopin's Op. 28 cycle of Preludes (the 1926 cycle, on Music & Arts, is particularly worth seeking), the four Impromptus, the Berceuse, and the Barcarolle. Finger slips aside, there is lovely tone and a delicate sense of rubato. Reissues are available on Pearl, EMI, and M&A. I would, though, also strongly recommend that you try his Liszt; there are some scintillating Hungarian Rhapsodies, transcriptions, and one of the most intelligent readings of the b minor Sonata that I've heard on disc. I have a Pearl CD with some excellent performances; there's more to be heard on Music & Arts reissues. I don't know of any solo Beethoven on disc; more's the pity.

    Look also to his recordings of Debussy and Ravel. Cortot was an active champion of much of this music, and was a member of the general artistic elite of early 20th-century-Paris (think of the citations of his name in various Picasso and Braque Cubist compositions). I know of a Chansons de Bilitis from EMI, with soprano Maggie Teyte, and even videos of excerpts from Children's Corner, with images that must have been directed by Jean Cocteau, in full-blown La Belle et Le Bete mode. The latter is the only thing that makes Philips's disc The Golden Age of the Piano worth putting up with.

    Getting back to the generally available, a sampling of Cortot's art is not complete without a sampling of his chamber music, particularly with the all-star piano trio that he formed with violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablo Casals (and played with for over 25 years). Their collected chamber music recordings (or most of them) are on a 3-CD set on EMI (mostly piano trios, including a sublime "Archduke," with the "Kreutzer" Sonata and some other chestnuts) and a single EMI CD with classic performances of the violin sonatas of Debussy, Franck, and Faure (#1).

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    Mark Obert-Thorn adds:

    Cortot's complete recordings as conductor, including all six Brandenburg Concerti, were recently available on a two-disc Koch Historic set (although much of it comes from very noisy source material).

    In addition to these, Biddulph has a sizeable catalog of Cortot reissues (11 discs in 10 releases, so far), all in superior transfers by Ward Marston. These include three discs devoted to Schumann, a Chopin disc with Cortot's first recordings of the Ballades and the 2nd and 3rd Sonatas, a Franck/Chausson chamber collection with Thibaud, a Debussy/Ravel disc with Book I of the Debussy Preludes, a disc of unusual short works by Vivaldi, Purcell, Handel and others, and more.

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