About this Recording
8.111065 - CHOPIN: Piano Sonatas No. 2 and 3 / Polonaises (Cortot, 78 rpm Recordings, Vol. 4) (1923-1947)

Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)
CHOPIN: Sonatas • Polonaises


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, Op. 37, 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 Cortot organized another society enabling him to give performances of major works such as Brahms's 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 for which 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 Cortot 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 in D minor, Op. 30, 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; his most famous students include Magda Tagliaferro, Clara Haskil and Yvonne Lefébure.

Cortot was a great artist 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. However, when he played Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1920 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.'

Cortot first recorded the Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, by Chopin on 5 December 1927 at a session where he also recorded the complete Preludes, Op. 28, and two pieces by Albéniz. HMV used their 'C' Studio in the Small Queen's Hall in London as a recording venue, but the recording of the sonata was not issued. Six months later, on 5 June 1928, Cortot recorded the work again, but this time the recording was made in 'D' Studio of the Small Queen's Hall transmitted (probably via a telephone line) from the Kingsway Hall. Cortot was probably not happy with the Scherzo as he recorded just that movement again (amongst other works) at a session in 'C' Studio of the Small Queen's Hall on 11 December 1928. Although a Pleyel piano was used for both 1928 sessions there is a noticeable difference in sound quality because most of the sonata was issued from the poorer quality Kingsway Hall recording. Only the Scherzo comes from the 'C' Studio session. Cortot infuses his performance with an urgency and sweeping energy throughout; he recorded the work again for HMV at their Abbey Road Studios on 8 July 1933.

The Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58, was first set down by Cortot in Paris on 20 and 21 May 1930 but this was not issued. He recorded it again for HMV on 12 May 1931 in London and this was issued on four ten-inch discs from a total of twenty two takes recorded that day. Between 4 and 9 July 1933, however, Cortot recorded a huge amount of Chopin's music for HMV including the Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49, the Etudes, Op. 10, Berceuse, Op. 57, Tarantelle, Op. 43, Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53, Barcarolle, Op. 60, the complete Preludes, Op. 28, and the Four Impromptus. At this time he also recorded both the B minor and B flat minor piano sonatas and the Four Ballades. All these recordings were made in No. 3 Studio at HMV's Abbey Road location where the best possible sound of the day could be obtained. It is probably for this reason that HMV issued both Chopin Sonatas from the 1933 sessions even though they already had recordings in their catalogue by Cortot of these works from 1928 and 1931. The 1933 version of the B minor Sonata (completed in only fourteen takes on 6 July) has incredible energy, particularly in the last movement.

Of Liszt's six transcriptions of Chopin's Polish songs, the Chants Polonais, Op. 74, only two became popular - My Joys and The Maiden's Wish. These were in the repertoire of practically every pianist of the first half of the twentieth century and have been recorded by such great pianists as Moritz Rosenthal, Ignace Paderewski, Leopold Godowsky and Josef Hofmann. Cortot recorded four of the six songs on 10 March 1939 and two of these, the rarely heard Spring and The Ring were issued. The other two songs recorded at that session were My Joys and The Maiden's Wish; these were not issued, and My Joys appears here from a test pressing. All were recorded on a Steinway piano and Cortot's wonderful tone quality can be savoured, particularly in My Joys. At the same recording session Cortot recorded Weber's Piano Sonata No. 2 in A flat which was issued, and Ravel's complete Gaspard de la Nuit which was not issued owing to damaged matrices and he unfortunately never recorded the work again.

Cortot only recorded Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise, Op. 22, complete when he was in Japan in 1952. He recorded just the Polonaise, however, for Victor on 5 February 1923 in Camden, New Jersey. This is the only acoustic recording on this compact disc, but being made right at the end of the acoustic era the sound is particularly good for its age. Critics of Cortot's technique can be silenced by this stunning performance in which Cortot understands completely Chopin's use of the decorated melodic line. At nearly five minutes, the side length of the 78 rpm disc is pushed to its limits, and there is a sense of Cortot rushing to the finishing post even though he has already had to make cuts in the work.

For such a popular piece, it is surprising that Cortot only made his first recording of the Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53, at the marathon 1933 sessions. The only other issued recording he made of this work comes from Japan in 1952 by which time Cortot was past his prime. The 1933 recording has all the majestic swagger and pomp Cortot could bring to such a work, aided by a well recorded Steinway piano.

A recording by Cortot of the Polonaise-Fantasie, Op. 61, was never issued during his lifetime. He had recorded it in 1943 in Paris when he was attempting to set down all of Chopin's works for French HMV. This was never issued, but he recorded the work again in October 1947 in London during sessions where he was recording works of Chopin that he had not previously recorded such as the Trois Nouvelles Etudes and the two Nocturnes, Op. 55. The recording of the Polonaise-Fantasie is perhaps not the most successful of Cortot's recordings, certainly the opening is rather more brusque than fantastic, but all of Cortot's penetrating drive, energy and vision are there, and it certainly deserves to be heard.

© 2006 Jonathan Summers



Producer's Note

The sources for the recordings featured here were British HMV shellac discs except for the acoustic Grande Polonaise, which came from a U.S. Victor pressing, and the unissued My Joys, whose source was a vinyl test pressing. One of the aims of this series of Cortot's 78-era Chopin recordings is to present versions of these works which have not generally been available on CD, so I have included the 1928 version of the Funeral March Sonata (which EMI passed over in favor of his 1933 remake in their Cortot/Chopin boxed set) and the 1933 version of the B minor Sonata, which makes its first-ever CD appearance here.

The B flat minor Sonata was rather dimly recorded and was issued on particularly noisy surfaces; its rarity, however, compels its inclusion in this series. The same applies to the unissued Polonaise-Fantasie, which came from worn shellac tests. Although Cortot recorded the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise complete in Japan in 1952, its late date puts it beyond the purview of the current series.

Mark Obert-Thorn



Fryderyk Chopin

Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 35, 'Funeral March'
Recorded 5 June 1928 in Kingsway Hall (movts 1, 3, 4)
and 11 December 1928 in Queen's Small Hall, London (movt 2)
Matrices: CR 2053-1A, Cc 15436-2 (movt 2), CR 2055-1A and CR 2056-2A, First issued on HMV DB 1250 and 1251

Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
Recorded 6 July 1933 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London
Matrices: 0B 5226-3, 5227-2, 5228-1, 5229-2, 5230-1, 5231-2, 5232-2 and 5233-1
First issued on HMV DA 1333 through 1336

Chants Polonais, Op. 74 (transcribed by Liszt)
Recorded 10 March 1939 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London
Matrices: 0EA 7591-2 and 7592-1; 2EA 7593-1 (My Joys)
First issued on HMV DA 1682 and unissued on 78 rpm (My Joys)

Grande Polonaise, Op. 22
Recorded 5 February 1923 in Camden, New Jersey
Matrix: C 27366-3, First issued on Victor 74824

Polonaise No. 6 in A flat major, Op. 53 'Heroic'
Recorded 4-5 July 1933 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London
Matrices: 2B 5205-1 and 5206-3, First issued on HMV DB 2014

Polonaise No. 7 in A flat major, Op. 61 'Polonaise-Fantasie'
Recorded 15 October 1947 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London
Matrices: 2EA 12435-1 and 12436-1, Unissued on 78 rpm


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