About this Recording
8.110613 - SAINT-SAENS / RAVEL: Piano Concertos (Cortot) (1931, 1939)

Alfred Cortot (1877 ?1962): Concertos Volume 2


Cesar Franck (1822-1890): Symphonic Variations

Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921): Piano Concerto No.4 in C minor, Op. 44 / Waltz Etude

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937): Piano Concerto for the Left Hand


Each of the three concerted works on this disc breaks new, inventive ground in its composition.


Ten years separate the first two pieces: Cesar Franck's Variations symphoniques was written in 1885, Camille Saint-Saens' Fourth Piano Concerto preceded it in 1875. Both works employ the technique of variation in direct, and in subtle, ways.


Alfred Cortot spoke of the Franck as being, "with the sonata for piano and violin, the most perfect artistic production that Franck wrote. I do not say the most beautiful, but the most lucid and the most polished." Calling it "the most vigorous and varied work that Franck ever wrote for the piano", he added that "though this work may be inspired at times by the most tender and even the most joyous feelings, feelings of sorrow, of struggle, of bitter conflict are also brought strongly into play, and what predominates in this work, which is neither 'likeable' nor 'gracious', is pathos, and the depth of human emotion."


In the Variations symphoniques, Franck pushed the concept of variation well beyond its previous barriers Cortot said "we escape from the rigid, boxed-up forms, and enter a kingdom infinitely more vast and free" Sir Donald Francis Tovey has described the work as "a finely and freely organized fantasia with an important episode in variation-form" (underlining mine), and he spoke of the variations within it as "a single flowing series forming little more than an episode placed between an introduction about half as long and a finale more than twice as long. The introduction and finale are on a totally different theme from that of the variations, this variation theme being only hinted at in the introduction and being only brought in as a bass counterpoint in two passages in the finale."


How ingeniously Franck constructs the work! There are two "elements" (as Cortot described them) which open the work, permeate it in various guises, are "in turn opposed or fused, clashing or merging, without losing anything of their initial character" (Cortot's words), and which gives it both continuity and diversity The first of these begins the piece, a roughly four-bar phrase strongly stated by the strings. The second "element" (of the same duration) follows immediately, played warmly by the piano without accompaniment In these two, Cortot advised his students to "always make the alternation of (the) two ideas, poles apart, contribute dramatic feeling (This) conflict of mood?is the vital principle of the work" In bar 35 the orchestra, playing pizzicato, presents the theme (in triple time) which becomes the basis of the variations.


Some have denigrated the abrupt change in mood which announces the Allegro non troppo of the work's extended final section Cortot said "it seems to me that the candour and fresh spontaneity of the finale is an indispensable part of the general balance on which the work rests No other device would in the same way have ensured the variety and completed the mood of the piece, founded as it is on an emotional progression."


Louis Diemer was Alfred Cortot's principal piano teacher, and it was Diemer (to whom the work is dedicated) who was the soloist in the premiere of the Variations symphoniques, on 1st May, 1886. Franck conducted Once Diemer asked Cortot to play the orchestral part of the work with him on a second piano at a rehearsal, Cortot said "I did not relax my efforts until my master yielded to my wish and allowed me to work at the solo part of the work he had just brought to my notice" Cortot later referred to the piece as "the work of Franck's that I have played most, and of which I had the pleasure of being at least a loving interpreter - if I had no other merit -in nearly every city in the old and the new worlds" On this disc we have the second of the two recordings Cortot made of the work.


The Saint-Saens C minor Concerto also had pushed the solo and orchestra genre into a new realm Instead of the previously-utilized three-movement, fast-slow-fast cast of a concerto, this work is nominally in two movements, but the first of them has two distinct sections, the second has three. It is the same pattern Saint-Saens would use eleven years later in his Organ Symphony, but in the concerto thematic material is used in vaguely cyclical form.


Cortot described the work as "a genuine Konzertstuck", and contrasting its cyclic characteristics with Franck's use of that device, said "When Franck defines a theme at the beginning of a work, and repeats it at the finish, its reappearance releases a sort of emotion derived from what has gone before. That is cyclic form interpreted from the philosophic point of view. We are not on the same ground here A musical game is set before us. The principle, therefore, is entirely different." Part of the "musical game" is that the chorale-like theme played first in the woodwind in the Andante which forms the second half of the first movement, then reappears in the Andante middle section of the second movement (as does more material from the first Andante), turns out to be the boisterous theme of the finale.


The opening movement's first half is a set of variations (described by Saint-Saens' biographer Brian Rees as being "of Protestant sobriety"). The theme is announced immediately by the orchestra, and at the end of the variations we get a glimpse of the scherzando music which will begin the second movement (more of the "musical game") The Andante ensues, and the first movement ends quietly, as Cortot says, "marked by resignation and calm. We ought to feel all the softness of falling dusk" He suggests that the beginning scherzo of the second movement (which in the present recording he takes at a faster clip than Saint-Saens specifies) "ought to be played with a clattering tone." The first movement variation theme makes a brief, galumphing appearance (the "game" continues). As the music subsides we find ourselves in the second Andante, with it at first quiet, then increasingly agitated launching into the final section which is heralded by a shout of horns and trumpets before the solo piano, in unadorned one-note-at-a-time presentation, initiates the folk-like, somewhat martial tune which dominates the music to its exuberant close.


Dr Michael Stegemann, in his book on Saint-Saens and the concerto form, describes this work as "a perfect union of classic intellect with the structural freedom of Romanticism."


Although Ravel's D major Concerto, composed starting in 1929 alongside the G major Concerto for two hands, contains some of the jazzy elements its composer - and many others at the time - flirted with, this work holds a gamut of moods, from sombre introspection through outburst, tenderness, and insouciance, In its way, this is some of the most inventive, varied, and dramatic music Ravel ever composed The composer himself spoke of the concerto's "mixed muses" The piano writing is extraordinarily complex and inventive, far beyond what might be expected within the limitations of a single hand employed in the solo part. Again quoting Ravel "In a work of this kind, it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands" He succeeded beyond what must have been his greatest expectations Nonetheless, Alfred Cortot arranged a version for two hands, seemingly alone in his feeling that it would be preferable One can hardly help but wonder just how many fingers Cortot utilized in the recording at hand.

Saint-Saens' Etude en forme de valse is the last of the Six etudes, Op. 52, dating from 1877. Cortot described it as being "witty and vivacious" ("spirituelle et semillante"), and his fleet, charming performance of it here (the second of his two recordings of the work) is a delightful encore to the programme on this disc.


It may be noted that both the Saint-Saens and Ravel concertos are heard here in the only recordings Cortot made of them, and that, while it is customary to grant Cortot leeway in regard to some dropped notes in a performance (the second movement of the Saint-Saens on this disc calls the point to mind), perhaps an extra measure of indulgence is required in the Ravel recording, which has quite a bit of “slippage? Nonetheless, the fluidity and beauty of pianism heard here, particularly in the extended cadenze at the end of the work, make this a quite special performance.


Norman Pellegrini

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