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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, May 2007

The final two volumes of Naxos’s Cortot-Chopin 78s series, of which this is the fifth and final one, offer substantial riches and do so moreover in fine sounding transfers. Three of the four Ballades were successfully accomplished on the same day – 11 March 1929 – and only the G minor belongs to another session made nearly three months later. These are less well known than the later 1933 recordings and are thus doubly deserving of our attention. In the G minor he opens with powerful and potently introspective passion. Subsequent accelerandi may not convince those who favour a more metrically rectitudinous approach but it sounds magnetically fervent nevertheless. Cortot’s expressive range is so wide, so deep that he seems to encompass every tactile facet from the Ballades. In the circumstances his fabled uneven technique, which lets him down in minor ways in the G minor, is of utterly subservient significance. Similarly with the F major we find a remarkable balance between the dictates of lyrical expression and tensile drama. This is a hugely complex piece and it’s difficult to fuse together its oppositional character. Cortot’s solutions always sound convincing and true both to the sinew and to the mind behind it. In the Third Ballade we feel him drive with ever devastating drama toward the heart of the matter – where the volatile flexibility of pulse brings the central section to truly volcanic life. As for the F minor it too is propelled by Cortot’s incendiary eloquence. It stands as a kind of panorama of intensity and of feelings pushed almost to the breaking point. The Nocturnes span a wide range of recording dates but demonstrate the same virtues. There are six here with one remake. The essence of them in Cortot’s hands is an almost vocalised expression allied to ravishing tone colours. True, his individuality can sometimes elide into mannerism – desynchronised chording was no longer fashionable and the metrical to-ings and fro-ings which he displays could fairly be judged indulgent. Still, how ravishing is the F major [Op. 15 No. 1] in all its limpid beauty. The Op.55 Nocturnes have also been transferred on an APR disc devoted to Cortot’s post-war London sessions (APR 5571). Naxos has retained just a slighter higher quotient of surface noise but otherwise there’s little in it. A triumphant end for the Cortot-Chopin series then. Good restoration work allows us to hear these performances in all their disputatious but teeming glory.



Bryce Morrison
Gramophone, May 2007

The passion, brilliance and audacity that makes Cortot a king among players.

This fifth and final release of Cortot’s 78rpm Chopin recordings is surely the jewel in the crown. Here, the 1929 rather than the more familiar 1933 set of the Ballades blazes with a passion, brilliance and poetic audacity that set the pulses racing and the mind reeling. Here is a great artist who seized the opportunity to achieve ever greater heights of eloquence and rhetorical verve. Superbly restored by Mark Obert-Thorn, every performance is charged with a heady and consuming poetry that confirms Daniel Barenboim’s claim that “Cortot discovered the opium in Chopin”. Take the First Ballade’s opening, where Cortot is every inch the bardic poet, free, rhapsodic and inimitable; or hear him in the Presto con fuoco storms of the Second Ballade, where he plays as if pursued by the furies of hell.

Again, even when inaccuracies fly in all directions in the heat of the chase, no other pianist has approached the Third Ballade’s central C sharp minor turbulence with such daring or recreative force. Cortot was never one to hold back the interests of decorum and in the Fourth Ballade he stretches the parameters of Chopin’s poetry to the very edge, his playing close to being consumed in its own ecstasy.

His selection of Nocturnes (sadly his projected Chopin survey was never completed) pulse with the same alluring quality, suggesting the reverse of Rubinstein’s more patrician elegance (amazingly the recordings of the two greatest Chopin pianists are available at Naxos’s bargain price). True, for today’s more antiseptic and “tasteful” practitioners such artistic conviction and originality will seem extravagant or even camp, a “theatricalisation of experience” in Susan Sontag’s classic definition.

Yet, there is surely no living pianist who could or would attempt to emulate such heart-stopping poetry. Maria Callas herself would have been among the first to pay tribute to Cortot’s cantabile, an unequalled “singing” at the piano.

There are two performances of the early E flat Nocturne (the 1949 performance, like too many good things, previously only available in Japan) and it only remains for me, ever greedy for greatness, to hope that Naxos will now complement their generosity with Moiseiwitsch’s scarcely less ardent and mercurial Chopin.



Stephen Pruslin
International Record Review, April 2007

This is the fifth and final volume in Naxos Historical's series of Alfred Cortot's 78rpm Chopin recordings. Within it, the four Ballades take pride of place. In weight and ambition, they are closest to the four Scherzos, though in every other respect they are very different. For both reasons, the two sets of pieces are often coupled on a single CD.

In comparison with the titanic, granitic quality of the first three Scherzos, all of the Ballades are their cousins rather than siblings. This in no way implies that they are less virtuosic, nor that they contain any less passion - but their intensity is expressed in a different way by Chopin, and in another sort of musical discourse. Another difference is that the Ballades played together form a satisfying four-movement sequence in a way that the Scherzosdo not, because No.4 in E, Op. 54 is so markedly different in character from the preceding ones (though that impression is significantly altered if they are played in the order 2, 3, 4, I).

The characteristic idiom of the Ballades is much more self-generating and free-associative, and Cortot's understanding of this is particularly evident in the F minor, Op. 52, considered by many as the greatest of the four. This is put into perspective by his 1933 recording of the F minor Fantasie, Op. 49 (Naxos Historical 8.111035), whose classical Greek architecture he projects with unerring mastery, while reserving a more improvisational approach for the passages where that is exactly the illusion that Chopin wants to create. The F minor Ballade, by contrast, is a musical organism, and Cortot conveys it as such. In his hands its magical opening sounds like a transition from a previous music that resonated in silence. The main theme is not taken too slowly and is flexible in pulse. The added density or fiorituraupon each of its returns builds inexorably to the chains of chords - first jabbing, then ethereally still - that usher in the pianistically taxing coda, wherein Cortot remains in full technical command.

Continuing in reverse through the Ballades, the A flat, Op. 47, whose essential lyricism contrasts with the more heroic or tragic character of the others, is played poetically but with no lack of power in the culminating pages. The proto-bitonal F major/ A minor, Op. 38 is the most difficult one to hold together. The tender berceuse in the first key is shattered by a violent outburst in the second, taken very fast by Cortot and slightly clouded by over-pedalling both here and on its return in D minor. The way in which Chopin alternates yet subtly intermingles these two opposing ideas is one of his most remarkable achievements. Cortot plays the biting A minor coda more slowly than many pianists, but he compensates by remaining in deep contact with the key-bed, after which the final truncated recall of the berceuse in the minor key sounds properly unresolved. He responds generously to the richer, less rebarbative textures of the G minor, Op. 23 (recorded almost three months later than the others), though here again his pianism can be unruly.

The disc is completed by six of the Chopin Nocturnes on seven tracks, because Cortot recorded the E flat, Op. 9 No. 2 again 20 years later. Unfortunately, what could be explained as 'period style' once is less possible twice: this is salonesque playing to the point of wilfulness, with distended rubato and left-hand notes played fractionally ahead of the right hand. In the F major of Op. 15 these 'splits' remain, while the minor-mode middle section is less turbulent than usual, reducing its contrast with the placid main nocturne. Its F sharp major companion, however, is played with a lovely deep legato, and the right-hand quintuplets of its Trio section are vibrant and glowing. In the atmospheric lagoonscape that begins the great C sharp minor Nocturne, Op. 27 No.1, Cortot introduces a degree of agitation when the right hand sings a duet with itself, predicting the stormy contrasting section ­this is both interesting and original. In the Op. 55 pair, some left/right splits mar the F minor, but the second in E flat redeems the excesses of Op. 9 No. 2 in the way that Cortot captures its quietly ecstatic character.

Here, the Ballades are the main thing. In them, Cortot remains a law unto himself, and his way of straying far from the music yet reaching its expressive core is something that every Chopin-lover should experience.




Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, March 2007

Born in Switzerland in 1877, his father French and his mother Swiss, Alfred Cortot was to become the great Chopin interpreter of his day and regarded as the most invaluable link with the composer that we have. That connection was chronicled in his quite large number of recordings that he made of the composer's most popular works. To modern ears he can appear a wilful exponent, always willing to manipulate the pieces in any way he wished, at times hurtling into passages in a way that taxed his technique. That he has been described as accident-prone in the studio was much of his own making, and though we know he often returned to make new versions of recordings that he felt were unacceptable, he equally authorised discs for publication that were littered with errors. That is immediately evident in the opening track, the first Ballade, where we find the final section full of errors. Even in the less taxing moments of the Nocturnes fingers still stray from their intended target. Yet throughout the disc you feel his innate affection for every piece, the less taxing ones played with a feeling of repose. His use of rubato was freely applied, phrases often shaped in a very personal way, at times heightening the excitement without disregard for dynamic markings. The recordings were spread over the years 1929 to 1951, the series producer continuing in his desire to use those versions that have received less recognition. Thus we have the 1929 recordings of the Ballades in preference to the much better known 1933 remake. All have been restored to Naxos's customary high standard.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2007

Born in Switzerland in 1877, his father French and his mother Swiss, Alfred Cortot was to become the great Chopin interpreter of his day and regarded as the most invaluable link with the composer that we have. That connection was chronicled in his quite large number of recordings that he made of the composer's most popular works. To modern ears he can appear a wilful exponent, always willing to manipulate the pieces in any way he wished, at times hurtling into passages in a way that taxed his technique. That he has been described as accident-prone in the studio was much of his own making, and though we know he often returned to make new versions of recordings that he felt were unacceptable, he equally authorised discs for publication that were littered with errors. That is immediately evident in the opening track, the first Ballade, where we find the final section full of errors. Even in the less taxing moments of the Nocturnes fingers still stray from their intended target. Yet throughout the disc you feel his innate affection for every piece, the less taxing ones played with a feeling of repose. His use of rubato was freely applied, phrases often shaped in a very personal way, at times heightening the excitement without disregard for dynamic markings. The recordings were spread over the years 1929 to 1951, the series producer continuing in his desire to use those versions that have received less recognition. Thus we have the 1929 recordings of the Ballades in preference to the much better known 1933 remake. All have been restored to Naxos's customary high standard.  



Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, February 2007

The last of Naxos' transfers of the Chopin that virtuoso Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) inscribed for 78 rpm shellacs features the legendary 1929 Ballades and the six Nocturnes that he recorded 1947-1951. In tastefully resurrected remasterings by Mark Obert-Thorn, Cortot's potent magic in Chopin - especially when he had been practicing - shines forth. The poetic imagination reigns in Cortot's approach to the set of Ballades; and whether the visual associations be those inspired by Adam Mickiewicz is a moot point. The G Minor has girth and supple tensile strength, feverish crescendos and poignant declamations. When the F Major Ballade moves from lyric recollection to fiery passion, the old shellacs barely hold the fires that rage forth. Seamless trills and rhetorical gestures for the A-flat Ballade, its repeated, cantering figure permitted, like Icarus, to glimpse the ether. Inner pulsation is the core of a Cortot performance, and the flexibility with which he weaves Chopin's harmonies and variants around this steady core is a miracle to audition. The F Minor opens in the midst of an exalted dream, diminuendi and ritardandi rife, but the internal dialogue poignant and secure. Lovely, polyphonic passagework and three-hand effects. When the emotional canvas expands into variation and dramatic recitative, the effects are never less than dazzling. Two inscriptions of the E-flat Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2 grace this disc, the first from 19 March 1929, the second from 4 November 1949. Dramatic, poetic, fluent, both recordings reveal the same basic approach; only their sound quality betrays any difference, though I find the rubato more pronounced in the later disc. Something autumnal infiltrates Cortot's reading of the F Major, Op. 15, No. 1. The F-sharp Major is even more Brahmsian, for want of an adjective that contains a simile of resignation. Its middle section becomes quite obsessive before the ternary song returns. Beautiful voicing, exquisite touch applied to the Op. 27, No. 1, a tracery of fairy dust. Its funereal second section explodes into a Polish national anthem. Demure stateliness for the F Minor, Op. 55, No. 1, lovely and poignant; but here my heart goes to Shura Cherkassky. We audition the Op. 55, No. 2 because the inscription by Ignaz Friedman is uppermost in our imaginations; buoyancy and lilting, inner harmonic movement characterize the Cortot inscription (15 October 1947) as well. Whenever he plays, Cortot consistently reminds us of Schumann's axiom that "only genius communicates with genius."






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8:27:11 PM, 20 October 2014
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