About this Recording
8.111035 - CHOPIN: Waltzes Nos. 1-14 / Fantasie (Cortot, 78 rpm Recordings, Vol. 2) (1933-1949)

Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)
Chopin Vol. 2

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 young Alfred joined the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine, studying the 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 des 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. At this time he also founded the Ecole Normale de Musique, for which he appointed a hand-picked staff. Cortot himself taught there until 1961; his most famous students include Magda Tagliaferro, Clara Haskil and Yvonne Lefébure.

A great musician whose interpretations were often on a spiritual level, Cortot 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.’

The earlier recording of Chopin’s Waltz in A flat, Op. 69 No. 1, comes from two days of sessions in May 1931. On 12th May Cortot recorded Chopin’s Sonata in B minor, Op. 58, (three or four takes of each of the eight sides) and Debussy’s Préludes Book 1, Nos. 1-7. The following day he returned to the Queen’s Small Hall in London for another busy day in which he completed the Debussy Préludes, made three takes of Liszt’s La Leggierezza, two of Saint-Saëns’s Etude en forme de Valse, Chopin’s Tarantelle and two takes of the Waltz Op. 69 No. 1.

Between 4th and 7th July 1933 Cortot recorded a huge amount of Chopin’s music at HMV’s No. 3 Studio in Abbey Road, London. The Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49, was recorded on a day in which he set down seven of the Op. 10 Etudes and the Polonaise in A flat Op. 53. The following day he recorded the rest of the Etudes, Op. 10, Berceuse, Op. 57, Tarantelle, Op. 43, Barcarolle, Op. 60, complete Preludes, Op. 28, and the Four Impromptus. During the following two days he recorded both the B minor and B flat minor piano sonatas and the Four Ballades. His stamina must have been great, and it is interesting to note that although he recorded huge amounts of music on single days in 1933, the 1934 recording of the fourteen Waltzes took two days to complete. On 18th June 1934 Cortot recorded the complete Etudes, Op. 25, and returned to record the Waltzes over the next two days. First he recorded the Waltzes in sequence making two takes (as was usual for technical reasons in those days) of Nos. 1-5. He tried combining Op. 64 No. 1, and Op. 70 No. 1, on one side of a 78 rpm disc but this must have been unsuccessful as the following day, after playing third takes of Waltzes Nos. 3-5, he decided to combine Op. 64 No. 1, with Op. 70 No. 2. Directly after recording that pair of waltzes, Cortot then paired Op. 70 No. 1, with Op. posth. in E minor of which he made three takes. The 20th June session ended with third takes of Op. 18 and Op. 34 No. 1, the latter of which was issued.

There are technical slips in this recording of the Waltzes, but they do not detract from an overall satisfaction of style. The Gramophone critic wrote at the time of their release of ‘this whole series of Valses is played with an artistry that a few technical lapses cannot mar. I can honestly say that the experience was not merely thoroughly enjoyable, but also instructive and revealing’. Rather more questionable to modern ears will be Cortot’s altering of the text. While slight changes to final bars are made for dramatic effect, the omission of the third beat in the left hand of parts of the Waltz in G flat, Op. 70 No. 1, and the più mosso section of Op. 64 No. 2, sounds more like a disregard for the composer’s intentions. When Cortot played this Waltz in London in 1946 a critic wrote, ‘The liberty he takes with time-values, particularly noticeable in the C sharp minor Valse, might be judged excessive’. Most notable to modern ears will be Cortot’s use of rubato. These works can sound dull if the pianist does not understand the use of rhythmic ebb and flow, something of which Cortot was a master. As the Gramophone critic continued, ‘The records are an object-lesson in the difficult art of rubato alone. Rubato is not to be interpreted as wayward licence. Cortot remembers that Chopin not only kept a metronome on his piano, but said, “The singing hand may deviate from strict time, but the accompanying hand must keep time.”’ Cortot recorded the Fourteen Waltzes again in Paris in 1943, and during the centenary year of Chopin’s death in 1949 recorded some more of the Waltzes while in London.

© 2005 Jonathan Summers

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