About this Recording
8.111023 - CHOPIN: 24 Preludes / 3 Impromptus (Cortot, 78 rpm Recordings, Vol. 1) (1926-1950)

Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)
Chopin Vol. 1

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 at the age of nine young Alfred joined the Paris Conservatoire, 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, 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 de Festivals Lyriques, through which in May of the same year he conducted the Paris première of Götterdämmerung. The following year he organized another society, enabling him to give performances of major works such as Brahms’s German 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 that 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 he 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 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, and his most famous students include Magda Tagliaferro, Clara Haskil and Yvonne Lefébure.

Cortot was a great musician whose interpretations were often on a spiritual level. He managed to convey a depth of meaning through his playing and became associated with the works of Schumann, Debussy and particularly Chopin. When he played Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1920, however, 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.’

Reference is often made to Cortot’s technical inaccuracy in his recordings, but to a musician of his stature, the message of the music was paramount. It should also be remembered that if the artist was not satisfied with a 78rpm side he could record it over again until he was. Like Anton Rubinstein, Cortot always had an image in his mind by which the mood of the work was transmitted to the listener. For the recording of Chopin’s Preludes heard here he offered his poetic adumbrations of the moods such as ‘Waiting feverishly for the loved one’ for No. 1; ‘The road to the abyss’ for No. 16 and ‘The snow falls, the wind howls, the tempest rages, but in my sad heart there is a more terrible storm’ for No. 8. Interestingly, a reviewer of Cortot’s 1933 version of No. 8 thought it ‘can only be compared to lightning, or to a rapid, crystal-clear stream scintillating in the sun’.

Cortot recorded many of Chopin’s works many times. There are three published versions of the complete Preludes Op. 28 recorded in 1926, 1933 and 1942. Between 1926 and 1928, however, he recorded the complete Preludes no less than four times. The first attempt, reissued here, appears to be his first electrical recording made for HMV. In March 1925 Cortot was the first pianist to make an issued electrical recording, made for Victor. The Preludes heard here were recorded in HMV’s Studio A at Hayes on 22nd and 23rd March 1926 on Cortot’s preferred Pleyel piano. (CD issues by EMI of parts of this recording cite the recording date as 7th April 1926, but this seems to be incorrect). These early electrical recordings were received with praise, particularly for the quality of recorded sound. It is therefore uncertain why Cortot recorded the Preludes complete again on 5th December 1927 (in Studio C of the Small Queen’s Hall), on the 4th June 1928 (in Studio D of the Small Queen’s Hall from Kingsway Hall) and on 11th December 1928 (in Studio C of the Small Queen’s Hall).

Cortot recorded Chopin’s Tarantelle Op. 43 at least seven times, and six of these recordings were published. One of these was made at the 5th July 1933 session at which the four Impromptus were also recorded, but the version heard here is the one made two years earlier. The four Impromptus from 1933 was Cortot’s only published version (a later set from September 1943 was not issued). A contemporary review found the playing to be ‘too businesslike, too cavalier for the gentle, graceful No. 1 … and rather a lot of supererogatory notes in the middle of No. 2, which, however, is perhaps the best of the four, the latter part being incomparably pearly’. Compared to many modern performances the Impromptus sound far from ‘businesslike’.

In the years immediately following the end of the Second World War Cortot was not popular, owing to his connections with the Vichy government. Only a few weeks after the War ended Cortot wrote to the Gramophone Company in London asking to make recordings, in particular to finish a recording of the complete works of Chopin, which he had begun in France in 1942, for the centenary of Chopin’s death in 1949. Although a contract was drawn up in 1946, it was not until November 1949 that the recordings of the Prelude in C sharp minor, Op. 45, and the Berceuse, Op. 57, heard here were made, as he was giving anniversary performances of Chopin at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in October 1949. He had previously recorded the Prelude on 10th October 1947 but this was not issued at the time, whilst the Berceuse had been recorded at the marathon session of 5th July 1933 and in Paris in 1943, but neither was released.

© 2005 Jonathan Summers

Close the window