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GP641 - CORTOT, A.: Piano Arrangements (Yue He)
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ALFRED CORTOT (1877–1962)


Of French parentage, Alfred Cortot was born in Switzerland and after early piano lessons entered the Paris Conservatoire as a pupil of Louis Diémer, winning distinction there. In 1896 he embarked on a career as a pianist and conductor. He served as chorus répétiteur for the Bayreuth Festival from 1898 to 1901 and the following year introduced Wagner’s Götterdämmerung to Paris. In 1905 he established with the violinist Jacques Thibaud and the cellist Pablo Casals the famous trio that flourished over the following forty years. Between 1907 and 1917 he taught at the Paris Conservatoire, where his pupils included Clara Haskil, Magda Tagliaferro, Yvonne Lefébure and Yura Guller. The period between the wars saw concert tours and in 1919, with Casals and André Mangeot, he established the Ecole Normale de Musique, where, again, he taught a number of distinguished pianists, while his recordings, on disc or on piano rolls, left a significant monument to his achievement. Something of his teaching methods can be seen in his remarkable Principes rationnels de la technique pianistique (Rational Principles of Piano Technique), a scheme to provide a sound technical basis for those able to stay the six-month course proposed. His other pedagogical work includes performers’ editions of works of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and others, the whole forming the 26-volume Editions de travail.

The early days of the war of 1939 found Cortot active in providing music for soldiers serving in the defence of France. The surrender of the country and the accession to power of the old war-hero of Verdun, Marshal Pétain, and the establishment of the Vichy régime, posed problems to those in public life, and not least to musicians. Some had been able to escape abroad, while others, without overt collaboration with either Vichy or the German occupiers, were able to avail themselves of opportunities that now arose. Cortot himself, who enjoyed unrivalled esteem in the world of music, took office under the Vichy régime and gave concerts also in Germany, while at the same time able to use his influence to protect, as far as he could, Jewish musicians. His war-time activities led, after the war, to recriminations and to a ban from public performance in France, which lasted a year. Cortot himself moved back to his native country, Switzerland. He was, however, gradually able to resume his career. He died in Lausanne in 1962.

In his list of Répertoire attached to his Principes rationnels de la technique pianistique Cortot recommends that teachers should include the music of contemporary composers such as Fauré in their teaching. Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite was written between 1893 and 1897 for piano duet and the whole set of pieces was dedicated to Hélène Bardac, known as Dolly, the daughter of Emma Bardac, who, as a singer, had fascinated Fauré. She was subsequently to leave her banker husband to bear a child to Debussy, whom she later married, and their daughter, Emma-Claude, inspired Debussy’s Children’s Corner. Fauré’s suite, idiomatically arranged by Cortot for one player, starts with a now familiar Berceuse. There follows Mi-a-ou, suggesting a cat, but originally designed as an evocation of Dolly’s brother Raoul, Messieu Aoul, while Le jardin de Dolly (Dolly’s Garden) provided the child with an evocative and beautiful New Year present in 1895. The Kitty-Valse, a birthday present in 1896, refers in its original title to Raoul’s pet dog, and Tendresse (Tenderness) was originally dedicated to Adela Maddison, wife of a music-publisher, the apparent object of Fauré’s affections at this time and perhaps in later years, after she had left her husband and settled in Paris. The suite ends with an exotic excursion into the world of Spain.

In his repertoire list for teachers Cortot describes the work of Bach as a true breviary for the pianist-musician, while limiting the titles in his list to works included for reasons of immediate technical relevance. Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, was written before the composer’s appointment as organist and chamber musician to Duke Wilhelm Ernst at Weimar in 1708, probably while he was organist at Arnstadt. The Toccata opens dramatically, its first cadence amplified in the arrangement, as are subsequent organ textures, continuing with a Fugue that becomes more imposing as it proceeds, leading to the final Recitativo and concluding section with its massively impressive chords.

The four Adaptations pianistiques are arrangements for piano of pieces that are generally familiar. The first offers Brahms’s gently lilting Wiegenlied (Cradle-Song). It is followed by an Arioso, an arrangement of the Largo from Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in F minor, a work of which the outer movements are arrangements, made in the later 1730s in Leipzig of an earlier oboe concerto, written during his period from 1717 to 1723 as Court Music Director to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. The arrangement of the slow movement from Chopin’s Cello Sonata introduces a less familiar work. The greater part of Chopin’s music was written for his own instrument, the piano. Among his compositions for instruments other than the piano are three works for cello and piano. The most substantial of these is the Sonata in G minor, Op 65, written in Paris in 1845 and 1846. It was dedicated to his friend, the cellist Auguste Franchomme, and the last three movements were played in 1848 by Franchomme and Chopin at the latter’s last concert. The third movement Largo brings a shift of key to B flat major, opening, in the original version, with a singing cello melody, taken up gently by the piano. The fourth Adaptation pianistique is an arrangement of Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s Heidenröslein, developed as it proceeds, with the melody allotted to other voices.

César Franck’s Violin Sonata presents a challenge to arranger and performer. Franck had started his career, however unwillingly, as a virtuoso pianist, before finding his true place as a composer and organist in Paris, where he attracted a group of loyal followers. His only violin sonata was written in 1886 and resembles other larger scale works of Franck by its use of a thematic connection between its movements. The sonata was dedicated to the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, who gave the first performance. The first movement serves principally as an introduction to the weightier second, demanding enough for a pianist in its original form, its passionate intensity leading to the third movement, with its reminiscences of the opening of the sonata. The last movement opens with a canon in almost pastoral style. The theme returns in various tonalities in a movement that provides a fitting climax to the whole work.

Keith Anderson

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