About this Recording
8.111245 - CHOPIN: Ballades Nos. 1-4 / Nocturnes (Cortot, 78 rpm Recordings, Vol. 5) (1929-1951)
English 

Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)
CHOPIN: Ballades • Nocturnes

 

The son of a French father and Swiss mother, Alfred Cortot was born in Nyon, Switzerland in 1877. During his childhood the family moved to Paris and young Alfred joined the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine where he studied piano first with Emile Descombes (1829–1912) and, from the age of fifteen, with Louis Diémer (1843–1919). Cortot made his début in 1897 with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, and gave piano duet recitals with Edouard Risler (1873–1929) playing arrangements for four hands of music by Wagner. His enthusiasm for the German composer led to his appointment as choral coach, then assistant conductor at Bayreuth working under Felix Mottl and Hans Richter. Cortot's experiences in Bayreuth left him eager to introduce Wagner's music to French audiences, and in 1902 he founded the Société de Festivals Lyriques, through which in May of the same year he conducted the Paris première of Götterdämmerung. The following year Cortot organised another society enabling him to give performances of major works such as Brahms's Requiem, Liszt's St Elisabeth, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Wagner's Parsifal and not long after he became conductor of the Société Nationale, promoting works by contemporary French composers.

Cortot was a multi-faceted musician, a conductor and chamber music player as well as solo pianist. He formed a famous piano trio with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals, but it was as a pianist for which he became renowned. He was appointed by Gabriel Fauré to a teaching post at the Paris Conservatoire, but was in such demand as a performer that he was invariably away on tour. In 1918 Cortot made his first tour of America, and during his second tour in 1920 he played all five of Beethoven's Piano Concertos in two evenings and Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, with the composer present. Also at this time he founded the Ecole Normale de Musique for which he appointed a hand-picked staff. Cortot himself taught there until 1961; his most famous students included Magda Tagliaferro, Clara Haskil and Yvonne Lefébure.

Cortot was a great artist whose interpretations were often on a spiritual level. He managed to convey a great depth of meaning through his playing and became associated with the works of Schumann, Debussy and particularly Chopin. However, when he played Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1920 one reviewer passed a comment repeatedly used in descriptions of Cortot's playing, 'Alfred Cortot explores the spiritual depths of music. In the most genuine and unaffected way he is among the most poetic of pianists.'

Between 4 and 9 July 1933 Cortot recorded a huge amount of Chopin's music for HMV and during the following two days he recorded both the B minor and B flat minor piano sonatas as well as the Four Ballades. However, Cortot had already recorded the Four Ballades four years earlier in 1929 and that is the recording presented here. They were recorded on 11 March 1929 in Studio C of the Small Queen's Hall on his preferred Pleyel piano. Generally he recorded each of the eight sides twice, but had a few more attempts at the second side of the First and Third Ballades. The Second Ballade went without a problem and both sides were issued from first takes. He was obviously not satisfied with his recording of the First Ballade as he returned to the same studio on 7 June 1929 to record four more takes of the first side and three more of the second side and although five takes were made of the second side (a particularly technically demanding section of the work), take four was issued.

Cortot's performance of the Ballades, like most works he interpreted, stem from his inspiration from allusions to visual imagery in literature and art, just as with his hero Anton Rubinstein. Chopin's Ballades, although apparently originally inspired by the Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz, emerge from Cortot's hands and mind like unfolding sagas. The passion and emotion, poetry and tenderness he brings to these works are all hallmarks of his playing. The overwhelming climaxes and perorations give a true sense of a complete drama being revealed to the listener. A contemporary critic wrote of these recordings, 'Here is a fine mind at work upon the wonderful imaginings of the greatest of writers for the piano. You need neither the book references, the "interpretations"; … all you need is the freedom of the city of your own imagination; and I think that only the pianist can get the last drop of delight out of this music.'

During this same period Cortot set down his famous version of Liszt's Piano Sonata in B minor on 13 March 1929 and at the end of this session recorded two short works of Chopin, the Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2, (available on 8.111035) and the Nocturne in E flat major, Op. 9 No. 2. A week later Cortot was back in the studio on 19 March recording César Franck's Prélude, Chorale et Fugue and Schumann's Etudes Symphoniques, Op. 13, which he had already attempted on 6 March. At the end of this session he made further takes of the two short Chopin works and it was from this session that the Nocturne in E flat, Op. 9 No. 2,was issued.

Cortot was not popular in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War owing to his connections with the Vichy government. Only a few weeks after the War ended Cortot wrote to the Gramophone Company in London requesting to make recordings, in particular to finish a recording of the complete works of Chopin (which he had begun in France in 1942) for the centenary of Chopin's death in 1949. A contract was drawn up in 1946 and during the late 1940s and early 1950s Cortot continued to record the works of Chopin. For some reason, however, he only recorded six of the nineteen Nocturnes. On 4 November 1949 he recorded the Trois Nouvelles Etudes, Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45, a couple of Waltzes and the Nocturne in E flat, Op. 9 No. 2. The twenty-year interval between the two recordings of this work shows a difference in sound quality but very little difference in interpretation.

Two takes of the Nocturne in F minor, Op. 55 No. 1, were recorded on 9 October 1947 and three takes of its companion, the E flat Op. 55 No. 2on 15 October 1947. The 20 February 1948 saw Cortot back at Abbey Road Studios where he recorded two takes of the Nocturne in F sharp, Op. 15 No. 2. Also at the session Cortot recorded his own arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, but this was never issued. It was not until more than three years later that Cortot recorded the companion to this Nocturne, the one in F major Op. 15 No. 1, but the session also produced the Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 1, also from a first take and Chopin's Barcarolle, Op. 60. Cortot's phrasing, colourful tonal palette and singing tone in the F major and C sharp minor Nocturnes could teach a singer a thing or two, while the dramatic middle sections of these works explode in anguish or ecstasy.

One never tires of listening to Cortot; practically every bar he plays has something of unusual interest or beauty in it. Returning to his interpretations after a period, one realises what a fertile mind this great artist had, how natural his interpretations unfold before the listener in all their perfectly proportioned glory. As one critic wrote of him in 1930, 'Cortot is the balanced artist about whose every phrase there is a tone of distinction … No artist is without defects, but he is ripe, scholarly, tasteful and powerful.'

© 2006 Jonathan Summers

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Producer's Note

The sources for the transfers on this final release in our series of Cortot's 78 rpm era Chopin recordings were Victor "Z" pressings for the Ballades, a laminated Australian HMV for the 1929 recording of the Op. 9, No. 2 Nocturne, and British HMV shellacs for the remainder. In keeping with the aim of this series to present, wherever possible, versions of recordings which have not been reissued often, if at all, the 1929 set of Ballades has been chosen over the more familiar 1933 remake, while the 1949 re-recording of Op. 9, No. 2has not previously been available on CD outside of Japan.

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Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23
Recorded 7 June 1929 in Studio C, Queen's Small Hall, London
Matrices: Cc 16213-2A and 16214-4; First issued on HMV DB 1343

Ballade No. 2 in F major, Op. 38
Recorded 11 March 1929 in Studio C, Queen's Small Hall, London
Matrices: Cc 16215-1 and 16216-1; First issued on HMV DB 1344

Ballade No. 3 in A flat major, Op. 47
Recorded 11 March 1929 in Studio C, Queen's Small Hall, London
Matrices: Cc 16217-1A and 16218-1; First issued on HMV DB 1345

Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52
Recorded 11 March 1929 in Studio C, Queen's Small Hall, London
Matrices: Cc 16219-1A and 16220-1A; First issued on HMV DB 1346

Nocturne No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 9 No. 2
Recorded 19 March 1929 in Studio C, Queen's Small Hall, London
Matrix: Cc 16227- 2; First issued on HMV DB 1321

Nocturne No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 9 No. 2
Recorded 4 November 1949 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London
Matrix: 2EA 14286-1; First issued on HMV DB 21018

Nocturne No. 4 in F major, Op. 15 No. 1
Recorded 17 October 1951 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London
Matrix: 2EA 16022-1A; First issued on HMV DB 21447

Nocturne No. 5 in F sharp major, Op. 15 No. 2
recorded 20 April 1948 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London
Matrix: 0EA 12932-1; First issued on HMV DA 1923

Nocturne No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 1
Recorded 17 October 1951 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London
Matrix: 2EA 16023-1A; First issued on HMV DB 21447

Nocturne No. 15 in F minor, Op. 55 No. 1
Recorded 9 October 1947 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London
Matrix: 2EA 12398-2; First issued on HMV DB 6730

Nocturne No. 16 in E flat major, Op. 55 No. 2
Recorded 15 October 1947 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London
Matrix: 2EA 12434-2; First issued on HMV DB 6730

 


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