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Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, August 2006

This volume is the first of five to be devoted to Cortot’s 78-rpm recordings of Chopin. The planned emphasis is to be on recordings which have been covered less frequently on reissues. The booklet notes cite the early 1926 electric recordings of the Preludes, which have been more often neglected in favour of the 1933 versions. The 1950 recording of the Prelude Op.28, Nr.15, the Raindrop, has apparently never appeared on CD outside Japan, and the 1931 Tarantelle is a premiere CD issue, so collectors are promised nuggets of recording history well beyond those in most people’s archives.

The booklet notes sketch the career of Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) as conductor, promoter of Wagner in Paris at the turn of the century, chamber musician and teacher. It was as a solo pianist that he became most renowned, and in March 1925 his was the first electric recording of a pianist to be issued. The Preludes on this CD are his first attempt at a recording, to be repeated no fewer than four times between 1926 and 1928. They were made using Cortot’s preferred Pleyel piano, and were justly praised for their aural quality by contemporary critics. The piano sound is full and solid, with no lack of bass and very little compromise in treble definition. There is of course a deal of surface noise, but having heard Mark Obert-Thorn’s work on the Naxos issue of historical Elgar orchestral recordings I was unsurprised to find all nasty ticks and pops ironed out with little or no detriment to the original sound. Take the dynamic definition in Op.28 nr.15 in D flat (1926), whose extended arch builds to an impressive fortissimo with all threatening rumblings and eloquently repeated notes taking the listener on a journey which, once started, can bear no interruption. It is fascinating to compare the early version with the 1950 recording, which has a more ringing quality and a slightly greater sense of acoustic, but which otherwise shows little advance in recording quality, or indeed change in Cortot’s interpretation.

There are some messy moments on these recordings, and commentators have often noted the technical inaccuracies in Cortot’s recordings. Made in the days before high definition sound and sophisticated tape editing, it is well to remember that these are more like snapshots of performances, rather than the polished, extended and oft-chewed sessions of the dedicated recording artist. The image, mood and message of the music was the important thing, and to my mind Cortot’s poetic approach to playing Chopin brings us close to Chopin’s poetic approach while writing. Modern pianists will be interested in the transparency and parlando qualities that Cortot can create in his Chopin. Older instruments often have this quality over their more powerful present day concert grand pianos, whose makers, striving for ever more enduring qualities of sustain, can throw the balance away from the more intimate qualities of true pianissimo or the kind of bass sound that Chopin would have had in mind when composing.

Cortot is in some ways the forerunner of modern attitudes toward pianism. His interpretations will not seem unfamiliar to most people today. He avoids extravagances of display or artifice, never going beyond the service of the true musician to the text and intention of the music. This is not to say that his interpretations are foursquare or in any way dull or predictable. Listening to the Impromptus, there is an irrepressible sense of fun in the recapitulation of No.1 which is priceless. The sense of being given a unique musical gift permeates the whole set – the playing is self-narrating in a way which I miss so often in modern performances.

In short then, this is the initial volume of a set which looks like becoming an invaluable addition to any true piano collector’s library. The recordings come up fresh as a well-pressed daisy, and the playing is characterful and more often than not uniquely insightful into the immensely varied world of Chopin. Each time I’m granted the privilege of listening to a disc like this the question is raised, ‘what is it that makes a great pianist great?’ There will always be controversy and divisions of opinion, but the persuasive argument for me here is Cortot’s ability to make Chopin solid and tangible, to communicate his art both on an earthily human as well as an elevated poetic level – simultaneously. That’s not something you can find every day, is it?

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, August 2006

In 1949 the English poet Basil Bunting - a music critic in his youth, incidentally - wrote a poem ‘On the Fly-Leaf of Pound’s Cantos’, in which he recognised the centrality, the inescapability of Ezra Pound’s achievement in that poem. Bunting’s poem contains the following lines:-

These are the Alps. What is there to say about them?

There they are, you will have to go a long way round if you want to avoid them.

Much the same can – should - surely be said about Cortot’s recordings of Chopin. No other pianist has done so much to shape the modern performance of Chopin. That isn’t, of course, to say that all his successors have played Chopin in quite the way that Cortot did; but it is to assert that just as you couldn’t become a major twentieth century poet in ignorance of Pound’s achievement and what he had to teach, so too no pianist could become a major interpreter of Chopin without taking account of Cortot.

This is the first of five Naxos CDs given over to Cortot’s 78-rpm era recordings of Chopin. The series will include at least one version of all the Chopin solo works recorded by Cortot and the collection is designed to place particular emphasis on recordings which have been reissued only infrequently, or not at all. Thus we get the 1926 recording of the Op. 28 preludes, rather than the better-known version of 1933, and the 1931 recording of the Op. 43 Tarantelle is certainly not over-familiar.

Everywhere on the CD there is wonderful, intelligent, imaginative piano-playing to be heard. There’s the tragic scope and intensity of Cortot’s interpretation of the A flat major prelude (no.17); there’s the elegant, intimate, fugitive feelings of the A major prelude (no.7), only sixteen measures long but here invested with a substance far greater than any consideration of mere length. The A minor prelude (no.2) has a painful bleakness which stays in the mind long after hearing it; the E major prelude (no.9) is played with remarkable vision and control. This first was not perhaps the finest of Cortot’s four recordings of Op. 28, but it has distinctive qualities of its own. The first of the impromptus has a delightful playfulness; the G flat major impromptu (no.3) is characterised in a fashion which is, paradoxically, both graceful and somewhat disturbing, emotionally speaking. The Berceuse is ravishingly gentle and the Tarantelle builds up to an almost trance-like momentum, as if danced under a blazing southern Italian sun.

Cortot’s Chopin has a remarkable sense of dialogue between the two hands; it balances weight of emotion against elegance of surface; it pays attention both to atmosphere and to structure. Above all, it has a sense of searching, a commitment to the discovery of the depths of both the music and the self. The performances feel almost like improvisations; certainly there is nothing about them of the over-prepared routine. It is as if each performance is a new search – a sense confirmed if one compares the two performances of the D flat major prelude (no.15), one from 1926, one from 1950, which are both included on this CD. The mistakes, the lapses of memory, for which Cortot was famous, are an inevitable consequence of this approach. There’s evidence of them here, but I don’t find that they are more than relatively minor blemishes.

The sound quality is surprisingly good, and given the compelling nature of the music making one’s ears soon adjust to such surface noise as there inevitably is.

This is a programme made up, largely, of miniatures. But there is something towering about them, as performed by Cortot. Bunting ends the poem to which I referred earlier, by observing:-

There they are, you will have to go a long way round if you want to avoid them … … There are the Alps,

fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!

Cortot’s Chopin performances will certainly endure and it would, indeed, be foolish to try to ‘avoid’ them.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, August 2006

The first of a promised handful of Cortot-Chopin discs brings us the much less well-known 1926 traversal of the Op.28 Preludes. Collectors will know the 1933/34 set, which is on Philips and may well be aware of the 1942 set on EMI but the earliest of the trio, this early electric album, is something of a rarity. So it’s good to have it corralled here with some other less recognised examples of Cortot’s art. In respect of the latter recordings, especially the post-War ones, I should alert you to the fact that there is no overlap with APR’s excellent Cortot disc devoted to recordings made after his re-emergence following his disgraceful conduct during the War.

All the highest qualities and felicities are here in the Preludes. A warm, singing tone, legato, daemonic drive and an almost unparalleled oceanic sense of space, though never one that is unduly lingering. The A minor [No.2] has a sense almost of improvisatory quickness along with its gravity. The E major [No.9] is a stupendous feat of digital control and vivid imagination, the D flat major dramatic, animated by Cortot’s bass power. The sixteenth in B flat minor is played with commanding, almost sovereign control; the F minor [No.18] is animated by profound rhythmic incision. Maybe he cuts off the pedal at the end of the E minor [No.4] rather too early and grades the climaxes with individualistic timing but the results, notwithstanding this or the finger slips in, say, No.21 in B flat major (probably the most obvious example) are still kaleidoscopic in their surveying of the emotive landscape of the Preludes.

The companion records are no less worthy of note. His 1950 remake of the D flat major Prelude [No.15] is a touch slower than the 1926 recording though the recording is a quarter of a century more up-to-date. The Impromptus – his only recording undertaking of them - are delicious in their whimsical colouration and the Tarantelle will be new to CD collectors as it’s never been made available in this form before.

The transfers preserve the upper frequencies, especially in the 1926 Preludes, to impressive effect. Some have more shellac noise than others but listening pleasure is not at all impaired. This is a cannily chosen selection; leading with the 1926 Preludes and the Tarantelle will whet many an appetite and rightly so.

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