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8.111261 - CORTOT, Alfred: Encores - 78 rpm Recordings (1925-26)
Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)
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 des Festivals Lyriques, through which in May of the same year he conducted the Paris première of Götterdämmerung. The following year Cortot organized 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 include Magda Tagliaferro, Clara Haskil and Yvonne Lefébure.
A great artist, Cortot's 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.'
Cortot had been recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company since 1919, whenever he was on the East Coast of America. On 22 March 1925 he was in New York to give a performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73 (the Emperor) with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Wilhelm Mengelberg. The previous day he visited Victor's Camden Studios in New Jersey to make his first commercial recordings using the electrical process. Although American Columbia were experimenting with electrical recordings of the pianist Mischa Levitzki in November 1924 (8.110688), Cortot was the first instrumentalist to have an electrical recording issued by Victor. Most of the sides recorded at the session of 21 March 1925 were issued. What is interesting about these early electrical recordings, apart from the improved quality of sound, is the way the microphone has captured Cortot's huge palette of tonal colours. This is more pronounced as he is using a Steinway piano rather than his preferred Pleyel. The only work that was not issued from this session was Liszt's La Campanella, but after recording takes 22 and 23 he seems to have abandoned it. Cortot recorded Chopin's Ballade in G minor, Op. 23, at this same March 1925 session and by the session of 27 December 1926 was up to take 6 on both sides and this was issued (track 12). In addition, for some reason, side two take 1 only was issued in Britain from the March session (track 5).
As with Schubert's 'Litany', Cortot's own arrangement of Brahms's 'Wiegenlied' displays his wonderful tone quality and all the myriad gradations of it which he uses to shape a phrase. A recording of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 was not issued on 78rpm disc (track 7) as it would appear that Cortot tried to fit the work onto one side of a twelve-inch 78rpm disc, but thought better of this and recorded it again on two sides of a ten-inch disc. (This latter issued version was made in December 1926; track 15).
Of another session a few weeks later on 6 April 1925, nothing was issued and it is a pity that Cortot's recordings of Ondine from Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, Ritual Fire Dance by Manuel de Falla and a complete Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven appear not to have survived, as he did not record these works again during his career.
Cortot was back in New York at the end of 1926 for the opening concert of the New York Philharmonic season where he played Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54, conducted by Walter Damrosch on 29 October. He repeated the performance at a Sunday afternoon concerto on 1 November. Earlier that week Cortot spent two days at the Victor Studios recording works by Chopin, Liszt, Weber and Saint-Saëns. These recordings were made to 'supersede' earlier acoustic recordings, as noted in the Victor Recording books, the high take numbers continuing the sequence begun in the acoustic era. One work was recorded quickly in two takes – Sous le Palmier by Albéniz. The Weber work was recorded again the following day and these takes were issued (track 8) although further takes from two December sessions were also issued under the same catalogue number (track 11).
On 27 and 28 December 1926 Cortot was again recording for Victor while in New York for another performance with Mengelberg on 31 December. From these sessions come a fine Chopin Berceuse, Op. 57, two utterly convincing Liszt Rhapsodies, Verdi's Rigoletto paraphrase and the complete Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Op. 23. Around a week later on 5 January 1927 Cortot gave his last recital of the season at New York's Aeolian Hall. Interestingly, the programme did not include any of the pieces he had recorded for Victor the previous week. He played twelve of Chopin's Etudes, the Piano Sonata in B flat minor, Op. 35, and the first book of Debussy's Préludes. What one critic wrote of this recital can easily apply to Cortot's recordings from this period (and many others), 'He is one of those great musicians from whose readings of familiar works there is almost invariably something to learn and remember. Whether the individual agrees with Mr Cortot's reading is another matter, and one that is unimportant in the face of his distinctions as an artist… it would be hard to surpass his sincerity, his feeling, his colouring, and declamation of the music. Nor are many as fortunate as he in striking the mean between what is nobly expressive and what is sentimental….'
© 2007 Jonathan Summers
This collection brings together Alfred Cortot's complete electrical recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Cortot had been a Victor artist since 1919, and had recorded extensively for them using the old acoustic process. In 1925, he became the first Red Seal artist to have an electrical recording released on the Victor label. The high take numbers and out-of-order matrix numbers for some of the sides are due to the fact that Cortot had recorded them previously acoustically, and the numbers were continued from his earlier sessions.
During his first electrical session in March 1925, Cortot made a complete recording of Chopin's G minor Ballade on two twelve-inch sides. Although both sides were passed for release, only the second half was actually issued, and this only in the UK, coupled with the F sharp minor Impromptu. (The Schubert transcription which was its US coupling was never issued in Europe.) For years, many collectors thought that the "Fragment from Ballade", as it was called on the label of DB 853, was merely the second side of the complete version from December 1926, but we now know this not to be the case. It was not included in the otherwise complete collections of Cortot's electrical Victor recordings of Chopin issued by EMI France and Biddulph, and this is its first CD release outside Japan.
Four of the published sides were known to have been issued in alternate takes. CD timing limitations preclude presenting all of them in this release, but we have included two of the sides. There was an alternate take of the Handel from the same session as the published take, as well as an alternate of the first side of the ten-inch version of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11, made at the October, 1926 session. Included on this disc is a second version of Weber's Invitation to the Dance, both of whose sides were remade during the two December 1926 sessions, probably just after the version recorded in October had been published.
Some of the original recordings went out of print within a few years of their original release and were never pressed on quiet shellac, while others stayed in the catalog until the end of the 78 rpm era. The sources for the transfers on this disc were "Arch" label Victors for the Schubert and Chopin Impromptu coupling; late prewar Victor "Gold" label pressings for the Chopin Etude and Waltz, as well as Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and the Albéniz side; a combination of Victor "Gold" and postwar pressings for the Brahms; an HMV for the Ballade "Fragment"; early Victor Orthophonic pressings for both versions of the Weber and the ten-inch Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 ; Victor "Z" pressings for the Chopin Berceuse and the Handel; a combination of "Gold" and "Z" pressings for the 1926 Chopin Ballade ; a postwar Italian Voce del Padrone 78 for the Rigoletto Paraphrase ; and a vinyl test pressing for the unissued twelve-inch Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11.
The 1925 and October 1926 recordings have been presented in the order in which they were made during the sessions. Because some of the December 1926 recordings were taken down over two days, I have grouped these by composer; however, the second side of the Rigoletto Paraphrase was the last item recorded at Cortot's last session for Victor, and the conclusion of his discography of recordings made in America.
SCHUBERT (arr. Cortot): Litany
CHOPIN: Impromptu in F sharp major, Op. 36
CHOPIN: Etude in A flat major, Op. 25, No. 1
CHOPIN: Waltz No. 7 in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2
CHOPIN: Ballade in G minor, Op. 23 – Part 2 ("Fragment from Ballade")
BRAHMS (arr. Cortot): Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4
LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11
WEBER: Invitation to the Dance
HANDEL: Suite No. 5 in E major HWV 430: Air and Variations, '(The) Harmonious Blacksmith'
ALBÉNIZ: Sous le palmier, Op. 232, No. 3
WEBER: Invitation to the Dance
CHOPIN: Ballade in G minor, Op. 23
CHOPIN: Berceuse, Op. 57
LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2
LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11
LISZT: Concert Paraphrase on Verdi's "Rigoletto"
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