About this Recording
8.110612 - CHOPIN / SCHUMANN: Piano Concertos (Cortot) (1934-1935)

Alfred Cortot - Piano Concertos, Volume 1

Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54

Chopin: Piano Concerto No.2, Op. 2


The Complete Musician


Pianist Conductor Innovator. Champion of music of his time. Educator. Editor. Writer on music, musicians, and music appreciation. Collector of priceless manuscripts and first editions.


Alfred Denis Cortot was everyone of those things, and as the nourishment of each of them contributed to the others, be became an important musical figure and one of the most respected performers of the Twentieth Century.


He was born, to a Swiss mother and French father, in Nyon, Switzerland on 26tb September, 1877. The family moved to Paris when be was a small child, and after initial piano lessons from his sisters be was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire where be studied first with Emil Descombes, one of Chopin's last pupils, then – more Importantly - with Louis Diemer, one of the best-known French pianists of the time. Cortot took an auspicious first prize in piano in 1896, leading to performances of Beethoven concertos with both the Lamoureux and Colonne orchestras. He was, in fact, regarded as a Beethoven specialist at the time. (In somewhat "full circle", Cortot recorded the thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas in the last years of his life, recordings which remained unreleased more than 35 years after his death.) One might speculate that his love of that composer's music, and especially the music of Wagner, was sparked by his association in those student years and at Bayreuth with Edouard Risler (some four years Cortot's senior, a Wagner and Beethoven specialist, with whom Cortot played Wagner opera at the piano in Risler transcription.) Cortot's touring career was launched immediately, but his fascination with Wagner led him to study that composer's music with J. Kniese at Bayreuth during the summers of 1898 until 1901, during which time he was a repetiteur under conductors including Mottl and Richter He had the Wagner operas memorised and could play through them at the piano. Back in Paris, he organized the Societe des festivals Iyriques specifically to conduct - and stage, at the age of 24 - the first Paris performance of Gotterdammerung (17th May, 1902j He also worked in both Paris and Lille in various concert societes (some of his own creation) over the next five years, leading the first Paris performance of Beethoven's Missa solemnis, Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem, and Liszt's St Elizabeth, as well as championing Wagner and conducting performances of published and unpublished music of contemporary French composers.


In the midst of this, in 1905 he organized, along with the violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablo Casals, one of the great trios of all time, one which - over its spasmodic years of collaboration and its still highly-regarded recordings - is credited with bringing chamber music to greater public cognizance and appreciation than it had enjoyed previously.


He taught at the Paris Conservatoire from 1907 to 1920, and in 1918 founded, with violinist Adolphe Mangeot, the Ecole Normale de musique, to this day one of the finest music schools in the world. He remained its director until his death His annual summer courses in piano interpretation drew participants from all over the world, and his teaching was thorough, to say the least. His students had to give written analyses of works before them to better understand the musical personalities of their composers as well as the music at hand. Form had to be analyzed into what Cortot called a "geographical map" of each work so it could be played more intelligently, and he stressed freedom to express within firm structure, speaking of the "fruitful illusion which leads the interpreter to believe he is the composer of the work which needs his collaboration, and to mould its expression according to the mysterious secret of his inner dream". In 1928 he wrote Principes rationnels de la technique pianistique, considered one of the finest books on piano interpretation as it deals with virtually every technical problem a pianist can encounter.


Cortot wrote three books on French piano music, the first two of which were especially effective in fostering a wider appreciation of composers including Debussy, Franck (on whose music Cortot was considered an expert), Faure, Chabrier, Dukas, Saint-Saens, d'Indy, Ravel, Florent Schmitt, and Deodat de Severac. There is also an important two-volume book from 1934 titled Cours d'interpretation which, though not "written" by Cortot, is a wide-ranging compilation by Jeanne Thieffry of "observations", as Cortot called them, from master classes he gave over several years. It contains highly-detailed comments about composers, their piano music, and quite specific aspects of both the techniques and spirit of its performance.


Cortot made more than eighty editions of piano music of various composers, most notably Schumann and Chopin, including the latter's Ballades, Preludes, and Etudes published in four volumes. As in his teaching, he included in these editions detailed suggestions for surmounting the technical difficulties in the music as well as writing about the music's character and extolling its worth. He also amassed a large collection of manuscripts and original editions.


And through all this, he was a tireless and internationally-acclaimed pianist, concertizing and recording, and these were activities for which he was at the time, and remains, best known.


He had been appointed High Commissioner of Fine Arts during the Vichy collaborationist government during World War II, and performed in Germany during that time. As a result, the postwar French government suspended him from public musical activity for a time in the 1940s, but he continued to concertize and make recordings well into the 1950s. His last public performance was in 1958, his last master class came in 1961 He had basically retired in 1960 to Lausanne, where he died 15th June, 1962.


Pianist and Conductor

The sound of Cortot's pianism is unique, readily recognizable. His repertoire encompassed music from all eras, including his own time (and reaching into such composers as Scriabin). His Bach playing was described as having dignity and nobility with an unmistakable human element (and there are recordings of him conducting performances of the six Bach Brandenburg Concertos as well as orchestral music of Couperin) His stage appearance as both conductor and pianist gave the impression of a strong personality which never intruded on the music, and - drawing again on his own teachings - there was great architectural structure in his music-making with an extraordinary balance of intellect and emotion. Perhaps the Germanic part of his training contributed to a modified French approach. Certainly his pianism exhibited greater weight than most French pianists of the time summoned, but he never hammered on the instrument, commenting that "sound and fury have nothing to do with power". He said "my colleagues taught me the art of making the piano sing", undoubtedly a reference to his extensive work with singers in the early part of his career His first recordings were as accompanist to singers. There is, of course, that matter of dropped notes, both in recordings and concerts, and of memory lapses in public appearances. If he is somewhat "famous" for these in our era of note-perfect expectation, most of us feel his musicality is so overwhelming as to override the imperfections. But it remains curious that this man who truly had a remarkable technique (one may quote numerous examples of his recorded repertoire which verify this) could become so progressively careless about technical details.


Cortot's pianism had an almost uncanny sense of rubato which seemed to flow naturally from his great sense of compositional architecture. It was a masculine but poetic approach which, in its imaginative, sometimes seemingly-improvisational variety, reached from sparkling brilliance and tenderness to deeply-felt tragedy It is not surprising that Cortot was drawn particularly to the piano music of Chopin and Schumann (and Liszt, too), Chopin had freed the piano, technically and emotionally, so it could express variety, expression, and depth beyond anything known before Cortot spoke of Chopin's "inner voice of the soul which dictated" his composing. And Cortot's writing, which could be florid as well as enlightening, led him - as he contemplated a plaster cast of one of Chopin's hands - to speak of "a skin through the pores of which everything ignoble has evaporated." Cortot's Schumann was a case of the Romantic pianist responding fully to the Romantic composer.


The Recording Artist

Cortot was a prolific recording artist; he made more than 150 records in the 1920s and 1930s alone. But he regarded his recordings less as a documentation than as a career - and perhaps, financial - necessity (his first solo recordings, for instance, went far in paving the way for his highly successful London debut, and his early recording of Weber's Invitation to the Dance was a best-seller). To him, music was too much of a living thing for anyone performance to stand as a representation of his art, and any given performance was to him a result of the mood of the moment. In the later years especially, he preferred to let his recording producer choose which takes to release, partly because of his lack of interest in recordings, and partly because he did not want to listen to captured mistakes.


The current disc contains Cortot's only recording of the Chopin F minor Concerto (he never recorded the E minor) and the last of his three recordings of the Schumann. The first of the Schumanns, an acoustical recording, dated from about 1923, the second and third, both electrical recordings, from 1927 and 1934, respectively; the conductor on all three was Landon Ronald.


The Interpreter

Excerpts (samplings, perhaps more accurately) from Cortot's remarks to his students about these two concertos might give us somewhat of a "geographical map" of his approach to them.


After noting that Chopin's "music remained, in spite of (virtuosic) preoccupation, emotional music", he says "the secret of the poetic interpretation of the first movement lies in the strongly marked opposition of a determined element and a second all languour and charm The designs generally called' ornamental ' are incorporated with the (first) theme; expressive declamation will suit them The second part of the first subject is intense, urgent, and tenderly passionate; in it we see continual aspirations struggling with continual misgivings; put the acting personality in a romantic attitude at once Chopin avoids the recapitulation of the first theme; when he recapitulates he goes right to the heart of the piece, the second subject; expose it with tender feeling This entire passage should be played as a cadenza; suppose this section is a portion of a barcarolle. The piano resume the initial theme in A flat with a more dreamy account. The different weights of various harmonies ought to give you the feeling of rhythm all through."


Cortot notes that the Larghetto is a musical portrait of Constancia Gladkowska, with whom Chopin was in love at the time of its composition. The movement, he said, "comprises two elements: one dreamy, the other dramatic. We are faced with everything that can be aroused in the twenty-year-old-soul - agitation, revolt, vehemence. The melody is described as con molta delicatezza ". In the central episode "are anger, violent impatience, perhaps jealousy!"


The third movement, Cortot says, “is a peasant’s dance, a krakowiak artistically stylized. Even if melancholy intervene" in the piece it must remain like a dance. In many places the right hand has only an atmospheric role; in music, a" in painting, there are always foregrounds and background". Like Schumann's Concerto, the coda in this piece is a foreign element, added to the work in a spirit of capricious fantasy."


Cortot describe" the Schumann Concerto as “a work of passion. The element of virtuosity is marvellously balanced with the poetic element. The subject of the latter is obviously always the single leitmotiv - the love of Schumann for Clara. In this instance happiness, both attained and shared, is reflected.


"At the beginning of the first movement the direction allegro affettuoso guides us so far a" the interpretation is concerned; the first four bar" constitute an 'introduction', enthusiastic in character. The expression we should give to the theme is one of warm tenderness. From its first exposition the theme should appear endowed with a character so definite, with climax points so obviously placed, that the hearer can recognize it without difficulty in its successive transformations" He speaks of an animato which occurs later as demanding ''as much animation in character as in movement," and that an even later andante espressivo "does not allow of too much slowness; it is not a vague reverie." And he states that "if the brief cadenza written by Beethoven for his Concerto in E flat (Emperor) did not exist, that of Schumann would be the finest in existence… (it) presents a peculiarity of not being conclusive, but of leading on to a new episode, of opening a window on a new horizon.”


He describes the second movement as "an ingenious growth" and say' "such a flower of the fields is charming enough in its delicate fragrance. We should not 'gild the lily'. Do not make an attack for each design; the entire movement is full of a charming delicacy, shyness, and reserve."


Cortot's comments on the final movement are too technically detailed to quote here.


The foregoing is noted only to show a small part of the immense depth of understanding Cortot had of the music he loved and performed so well In the end, happily, we have his music-making preserved on recordings such as these to experience some of the true measure of the man and his singular art.


Norman Pellegrini


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