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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, August 2009

WEBER, C.M. von: Piano Sonata No. 2 / LISZT, F.: Piano Sonata / SCHUBERT, F.: 12 Deutsche (Landler) (Cortot) (1931–1948)
8.112012

CHOPIN, F.: Piano Sonata No. 2 / SCHUMANN, R.: Kinderszenen / Carnaval (Cortot) (1953)
8.111327

Naxos continues its own restoration of Cortot’s recordings with this brace. The cover art may have changed but the rationale is unbending; good programming, fine transfers. The first disc under discussion [8.112012] takes that seismic, pioneering 1939 Liszt Sonata recording, the first ever. It has never been surpassed for its sheer speed, just one of the most startling components of this quiveringly magnetic, ultra-Romanticised performance, one demarcated by some digital limitations and a kinetic, tersely driven spontaneity. It’s galvanising, if exhausting. The Weber sonata recording is an example of classic Cortot. It enshrines playing of ripe and rich colouration, ineffable touch, and powerful sympathy for the idiom, but also a number of mis-hits that will prove irksome to the more fastidious listener. This volume also gives us some more elevated examples of Cortot’s non-Chopin repertoire. The Légende and La leggierezza are fully the equal of the Sonata in their kaleidoscopic evocations whilst his own arrangement of Schubert’s Litanei auf das Feur Aller Seelen is a study in tonal warmth, the Ländler D790 shows his buoyancy and rhythmic vitality.

The companion disc [8.111327] gives, in part, his ‘Last Words’ on canonic repertoire. Kinderszenen was a discographic constant; recorded in 1935, 1947 and here in 1953. This final traversal is artful and laced with expansive rubati, richly characterised and strongly voiced. It builds to a moving envoi, having given an unsentimentalised Träumerei, a staunchly voiced Ritter vom Steckenpferd and a Furchtenmachen that focuses on its eruptiveness and almost spectral fright, as well as eloquently controlled pedalling in Der Dichter spricht. Cortot also set down Carnaval three times—1923, 1928 and, here, once again, 1953. This last recording is a noble study but vitiated by wrong notes to such an extent that it does intrude; approximations in the Marche des Davidsbündler are the order of the day, not the exception. But if you can listen through these well-worn Cortotisms you will still find much to excite the poetic instinct, albeit the early electric of 1928 is the place to go for a more comprehensive account of his way with the work.

The Chopin Second Sonata received no fewer than five recordings; 1928, 1933, 1952, 1953 (this one) and 1956. It was a strenuous two days’ recording in May 1953 for the seventy-five year old pianist because he set down all these three strenuous works in that period. The Sonata is subject to Cortot’s arsenal of emendations—including quite a few added bass octaves—but the tonal and expressive qualities of the playing are richly intact, even in this near valedictory statement. For all the digital slips the power and refinement of the playing are never in doubt, not least in the reverentially spun B section of the Funeral March. Again you will need the earlier recordings for a fuller and more comprehensive example of his playing of the Sonata—but this recording is no mere pendant, no matter what the failings may be.

Naxos’s transfers are good. When comparison has allowed I’ve listened to them alongside EMI’s own restorations, not least in their Icon box; Naxos retains a higher grain of surface noise but EMI’s own transfer seems cut at a lower level (the Liszt Sonata); the EMI is steelier than the Naxos in the Légende, with the latter preferable; or can be steelier. La leggierezza is much more ‘present’ in Naxos’s work.



Alan Becker
American Record Guide, May 2009

Cortot recorded segments of his repertory several times. With the exception of Schumann’s ‘Prophet Bird’ from April 19, 1948, the other pieces here date from May 1953. All were recorded at EMI’s Abbey Road Studio 3, and all are in decent, if a bit clangorous, sound.

Cortot could be a frustrating pianist. His musicality was exceptional, and his attention to details often overlooked could make for some surprising lines, often hidden, coming to the fore. Alas, he also was a notoriously inaccurate pianist and could shower the listener with fistfuls of wrong notes. That we can forgive many of these in the context of such glorious interpretation is testament to his genius. Many listeners are not so generous with forgiveness.

This Chopin Sonata is given without the first movement repeat. It is also reasonably free (about 70%) of additional, unwritten, notes. If I would not place it among favorites, it is both interesting and respectable. Kinderszenen is another story entirely, but this one joins, but does not surpass, the best of the competition.

Carnaval has all sorts of hidden lines brought forward to the new light of day. Many of them alter the listener’s perspective and can sound like arrogant eccentricities to today’s listener. A plethora of wrong notes and splattered chords has to be accepted in the context of the pianist’s unique ideas. Only the Cortot lover will find complete sustenance in the playing. It is both great and grate. Good, perceptive notes about the playing.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2008

Though he could at times be infuriatingly willful, Alfred Cortot was one of the great pianists of his time and enjoyed enormous popularity.

Born in Switzerland in 1877, he moved to Paris as a child and was always considered as a multi-talented French musician. In addition to his career as a virtuoso pianist, he was a highly respected conductor and part of the foremost piano trio of his time. In this on-going series we have now reached the recordings made in the period 1948 to 1953, by which time he was into his seventies. He was generally regarded as his generation’s leading Chopin exponent, and his request to record the Second Sonata for a second time was fulfilled with sessions in May 1953. Sadly with advancing years his technique was frail, the opening movement littered with errors, but in the relative calm of the third movement, and the brief finale, we do hear the Cortot of former years. Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Carnaval came from the same sessions, and while EMI were by then recording on tape, it seems that Cortot was more interested in spontaneity than in patching sessions. Look past the wrong notes and ask yourself when you last heard a performance of Kinderszenen that captures such youthful happiness in the music?  He equally brings a magical feel to Carnaval though maybe here the erratic approach leaves it as an interesting addition rather than primary purchase. The seventh movement of Waldszenen is also included from a 1948 session. The restoration engineer comments on the imperfect original discs that cannot be corrected, but has still performed a remarkable transfer. 






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