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with exquisite lightness and profound the Rigoletto Paraphrase and Weber’s
Cortot had a deep,
The poet
depth, and an inner sense of rhythm that Invitation to the Dance, as well as a
never wavered even when he applied his
unique, inimitable rubato, all of which
remarkable ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’
with incredible wave-like runs. His
instantly recognisable

fused with his innovative spirit to create
a truly individual style that continues to
1928 Carnaval and Children’s Corner
Suite also feature a remarkable blend
aromatic sonority,
fascinate listeners today. of his pianistic qualities, with crisply a refined pedal
defined articulation, a strong rhythmic
FIRST RECORDINGS pulse, magical tonal colours, beautifully technique, the
Cortot’s recordings from 1919 through highlighted left hand voicing and
the mid-1920s reveal an artist quite impressive manual dexterity. capacity to phrase
different from how he is generally There are some more overt lapses in
regarded. Unfortunately, the so-called accuracy in Cortot’s 1929 world premiere with exquisite
acoustical recording process restricted recording of Liszt’s B minor Sonata,
lightness and
As a prolific recording artist
the tonal range of his early recordings and a tendency towards more sweeping
(before the microphone came into use phrasing. But it also offers a taste of
profound depth,
and controversial virtuoso,
in 1925 to create ‘electrical’ recordings, the massive bass sonority and deeply
a performer’s sound was amplified by fragrant timbre that would become
and an inner sense
cones, resulting in limited fidelity). even more prominent as his career
Nevertheless, one hears dazzling runs progressed. His deftness had clearly not
of rhythm that
the face of Romantic with a consistently beautiful tone and
evenness of articulation, and virtuoso
eroded when, at 53, he made retakes of
‘La Leggierezza’ and the Etude en forme
never wavered
pianism with his highly works such as Liszt’s ‘La Leggierezza’
Etude, Rigoletto Paraphrase, Hungarian
de valse in 1931: he may lack the flawless

individual interpretations. Rhapsodies Nos 2 and 11 and Chopin’s

‘Winter Wind’ Etude are played with
Mark Ainley traces the staggering precision, subtle pedalling
and lyrical phrasing. When the young
evolution of his pianism Vladimir Horowitz heard Cortot’s 1919
recording of Saint-Saëns’ Etude en forme
de valse, he travelled to Paris in the hope

of learning his fingering. Cortot refused
LFRED CORTOT WAS A accessible than ever before. All of his unaware that his earlier performances to tell him.
distinctive figure in the recordings warrant exploration (there would be listened to decades later, Cortot’s 1923 recording of Scriabin’s
pianistic pantheon. A teacher, are certainly grounds for dissertations let alone into the next century: he Etude Op 8 No 12 demonstrates that his
author, editor, soloist, chamber music beyond the scope of this publication), as recorded his first Chopin Preludes unique rubato was already a distinctive
collaborator and conductor, the Swiss- the four-decade span of his output reveals cycle in 1926, but also did complete feature in his playing, though it is
born French pianist was also an important a fascinating evolution in the approach retakes in 1927 and 1928 (both unissued) less pervasive in other recordings of
and prolific recording artist. His career of this extraordinarily communicative before making subsequent versions in this period than it would be in later
spanned the history of recording from pianist. the 30s, 40s and 50s, suggesting that performances. His 1925 acoustical
its infancy through to the early years his earlier recordings were considered recording of the Berceuse from Fauré’s
of stereo, his discs as a soloist covering TECHNIQUE AND RECORDINGS provisional accounts as opposed to Dolly Suite (unreleased until 1993) is
40 years. Cortot’s highly individual and The first thing new listeners tend to permanent records. glorious: the rhythmic lilt is utterly
unabashedly Romantic readings of 19th- notice in Cortot recordings is a lack of In reality, Cortot had a remarkable beguiling and the phasing silky smooth,
century repertoire, as well as evocative technical precision. In the early years of technique, his multifaceted artistry with restrained yet seductive rubato,
interpretations of French Impressionist the gramophone, there was no editing going well beyond mere notes. Just as an mesmerising tonal glow and poised
composers and some explorations of technology and each 78-rpm disc of actor must do more than say all of the highlighting of harmonic progressions
Baroque and classical works, are still between four and five minutes was carved words in a script, great musicians reveal in the left hand. These two minutes of
considered among the greatest piano directly, so some issued performances the character of a composition by going pianistic bliss make it more regrettable
records ever made. were consequently not note-perfect. In beyond the notes on the page to express that Cortot never again recorded a solo
With EMI’s recent release of the his acclaimed recordings from the 1930s, the music through tone, articulation, work by Fauré.
near entirety of his substantial Cortot was in his mid-50s to early 60s, an phrasing, voicing, rubato and tempo.
commercial discography in a 40- age when any performer would be not be Cortot’s mastery was exhaustive. He had ELECTRICAL PERFORMANCES
disc box set (reviewed in the at their technical peak, let alone a deep, instantly recognisable aromatic Cortot’s first electrical recordings
March/April edition, issue 18) and a few one who also taught, administered a sonority, a refined pedal technique that reveal virtuosity and tonal colours
broadcast performances available on conservatory, wrote books, edited scores afforded him a vibrant palette of tonal in full abundance, as exemplified by
other labels, Cortot’s artistry is more and toured as a soloist. He was probably colours and effects, the capacity to phrase 1926 remakes of two Liszt Rhapsodies,

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deeply lyrical playing, while Weber’s from the mid-1950s of Schumann’s
Second Piano Sonata is filled with Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana benefited
rhythmic brio, elegance, charm and from editing (quite extensively, one
enthusiasm. It’s hard to imagine why engineer allegedly said) and the playing
‘My Joys’ was never issued – his rich is wonderful, better than the EMI
tone, magnificent pedalling and delicate readings of the same period, yet still
blending of colours are exquisite and lacking the crispness of his versions of
create a magical glow. Cortot also two decades earlier. A newly released
recorded the complete Gaspard de la 1957 set of Chopin Preludes and

nuit that day but sadly no pressings have Ballades, recorded one month after
been located and the masters have been Cortot’s 80th birthday, features fantastic
destroyed: if it was on a par with the playing with imaginative phrasing
other recordings made that day, it would and powerful breadth of tone. While
have been a divine reading. Cortot is somewhat taxed in the more
heroic passages of the Ballades, he plays
DEEPENING EVOLUTION remarkably well for his age and the
The 1940s saw some of the most profound splicing results in big-scale performances
shifts in Cortot’s playing. He started out featuring that beautiful Cortot timbre in
the decade with more agility than would high fidelity.
be the case towards its end. His December Cortot undoubtedly stayed before
clarity of a decade earlier, but he still orchestra, and four of the five concerted 1942 account of Chopin’s Etudes Op the public, both in concert and in the
plays at breakneck speed with incredible works in his EMI discography were 10 and Op 25 features surprisingly studio, for too many years, and he was
precision, though the emphasis is more recorded in the mid-1930s (earlier takes agile playing, particularly for a 65-year- simply incapable of coping with the
on tonal colour than digital fluency. of the Schumann Concerto and Franck old. Cortot still displays enviable demanding repertoire and pacing that
Cortot’s own coda in ‘La Leggierezza’ is Variations Symphoniques date from the dexterity and suppleness, and while the motivated him in his earlier years. The
elegant to a fault. 1920s, and Ravel’s Left Hand Concerto performances are rarely note-perfect, released excerpts from an attempted
was recorded in 1939). The Chopin there are sometimes fewer (and at least cycle of Beethoven Sonatas have some
POETIC VIRTUOSITY F minor and Saint-Saëns C minor, different) wrong notes than in his better moments of exquisite beauty – his tone
Cortot’s current reputation as a produced back-to-back on 8 and 9 July known recording from a decade earlier; and phrasing in the opening movement
performer comes primarily from his poetic 1935, are among his most impressive melodic lines commonly overlooked of the ‘Moonlight’ are magnificent – but
Chopin and Schumann recordings of the performances, with stunning filligree rise to the surface with remarkable there are all too many sad moments of
1930s, which are brimming over with fingerwork and arched phrasing in clarity, precision, buoyancy and beauty fragility and declining capacity.
vibrant enthusiasm, aristocratic poise, the Chopin and remarkably big-toned, of tone. The Etudes and Preludes were
elegant phrasing, exquisitely fluid deeply phrased and rhythmically recorded in two days, while the following THE POET SPEAKS
timing and gorgeous tone, with vivacious playing in the Saint-Saëns. year the 14 Waltzes were despatched in a his playing had gone through another three-month tour of Japan in 1952, Film footage of an aged Cortot teaching a
delicate touches that seem spontaneous. single day (they are somewhat splashier, transformation. His dexterity no Cortot spent two days recording two masterclass shows the essence of the artist
This is all the more astounding given A SENSE OF FANTASY as was the 1934 cycle). Cortot made longer as polished, he relied more on CDs’ worth of performances of variable into which he evolved. In a demonstration
the limited time frame of his recording From the mid to late 1930s, one senses takes of other Chopin works in these his rich sonority, arched phrasing, quality that have only recently been of Schumann’s Der Dichter Spricht from
sessions: in the five days from 4 to more of Cortot’s shift towards drawing sessions, including the four Scherzi, rubato and pedal effects, perhaps issued in the West. The existence of Kinderszenen, Cortot states that ‘one
8 July 1933, he recorded Chopin’s out the deepest essence from each note seven Polonaises and the Ecossaises, choosing to communicate more Chopin’s Second and Third Scherzi must not play this piece so much as
four Ballades, four Impromptus, in lyrical passages, complemented by his but these were not released and impressionistically to compensate seems tantalising, and while there is dream it’. Despite his waning digital
two Sonatas, 12 Etudes Op 10, the beautiful rubato. His soaring phrasing, pressings have not been found – another for his less precise articulation. His some brilliance in the Second, these capacity in his final years, the most
Fantaisie, Barcarolle, Tarantelle dreamy pedal effects, creative voicing and significant loss for posterity. A recently Kinderszenen and Children’s Corner sessions reveal disquieting playing. powerful aspect of Cortot’s technique
and Polonaise No 6, as well emphatic bursts of energy are all ideally published 1944 concert performance of Suite have deeper tone, a more Both in Tokyo and London, Cortot was his imagination. From his earlier
as the 24 Preludes Op 28, while four suited to the works of Schumann, several Chopin’s F minor Concerto conducted pronounced rubato and less clear recorded showpieces for which he lacked virtuosic performances through his
days from 18 to 21 June 1934 produced of which he recorded in 1935 and 1937. by Mengelberg is more introspective articulation than earlier versions, while the requisite deftness, but in lyrical more impulsive readings to his later
retakes of some the Preludes and The quixotic Davidsbünderlertänze and and soulful than the studio account his moving readings of Chopin’s Trois pieces, his tone and phrasing enabled lyrical interpretations, Cortot’s fertile
readings of the 12 Etudes Op 25 and 14 Kreisleriana in particular are well served of nine years earlier, demonstrating Nouvelles Etudes, Prelude Op 45 and him to communicate wonderfully: the imagination infused everything he played
Waltzes. The Third Impromptu is an by this pianistic approach, although Cortot’s deepening tone and rich array the Op 55 Nocturnes display some of 1954 Largo from Chopin’s B minor with aristocratic elegance, a magical
example of Cortot’s best playing, with there are some splashy moments. of colours. his richest tonal colours and evocative Sonata captures his expressive playing at sense of possibility and an appreciation
imaginative rubato, perfectly co-ordinated Unfortunately, his 1935 recording of the phrasing, like the swirling smoke of a its best. for beauty and the ephemeral. His rich
tempo shifts in transitional passages and Fantasy was never issued and copies have POST-WAR TRANSFORMATION cigarette and the rich aroma of a well- recorded legacy stands as a testament
effervescent phrasing, with ascending not been found. After the Second World War, Cortot aged brandy. FINAL TAKES to one of the most profound poets of
runs evaporating magically – miraculous Cortot’s session on 10 March 1939 was banned from performing for a There was a more significant When tape editing gave Cortot the the piano. e
playing of a frequently overlooked work. finds the 61-year-old both technically year due to his involvement with the deterioration in Cortot’s technical capacity to do what any pianist nowadays
Some of Cortot’s most spirited playing and poetically in excellent form. Three Vichy regime, and when he returned capacity through the 1950s. In a small does, the results could be impressive. Alfred Cortot Anniversary Edition Recordings
is to be found in his recordings with Chopin-Liszt transcriptions feature to the studio in 1947 at the age of 70, Victor studio in Tokyo while on a Unissued German radio broadcasts 1919-59 (40 CDs) is out now on EMI

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