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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, January 2011

If you are not compiling a chronological series of recordings, and are instead working on programming a series of discrete and attractively selected examples from a musician’s repertoire, you sometimes have to work hard. If that’s been the case in Naxos’s case I haven’t noticed, because each disc has a very cogent recital look, whether concentrating on a single composer or linking things thematically or in other ways. This preamble applies generally, but also to this particular and latest example of the Naxos Cortot series.

The introduction moves from Purcell to Bach, then we enter the classical period with Mendelssohn, and take in pungent examples of Franck’s Wagnerian inspiration before ending on an encore note with Saint-Saëns. As I said then, this is an especially satisfying programme, one that wears well on repeated listening—should one wish to listen thus—and comes in at 75 minutes on the clock.

Things begin with the Purcell arrangements made by A.M Henderson, who was much given to making editions for wide dissemination and popular success. Choirmaster at the University of Glasgow, he’d studied the organ with Widor and the piano with Pugno and Cortot, and it was to the latter that he dedicated his ‘Popular Pieces for Piano’. These are not the most searching pieces ever written, but Henderson’s aim in arranging them was practical not scholarly, and they work well. Cortot plays them with a lovely spring to the rhythm and with great simplicity and warmth, but with no attempt at over-inflation. The Bach concerto performance (after Vivaldi) is truly leonine and magnificent in its sonorous, declamatory power. The central Sicilienne is equally persuasive, whilst the Toccata finale is a splendid example of the pianist at full throttle. It reminded me of the comment made to me by a pianist friend who said that Cortot’s major slips came in works he knew and performed often—because he didn’t practice them assiduously—but when it came to things that might not be so central to his repertoire he got down to serious practising and slips were minimised. I don’t know if that is a widespread conception but listening to this Bach-Vivaldi and to the Franck pieces—magnificently played—it does bears a certain weight.

As for the two Franck pieces, there’s no doubting their superb conception. His pedalling in the Prélude, choral et fugue is marvellously controlled, whilst the sonority, and the timbral weight remain limpid and light, the tempo forward-moving but not insistent. The playing is of full intensity, and it’s beautifully expressive in the Choral, accelerating into the Fugue with reserves of energy and dynamism. It’s true that we can hear some textual emendations—they’re mainly registral—but the conception as a whole is marvellously compelling. His Mendelssohn Variations Sérieuses is one of three recordings he left of it—the last can be found on APR5573—but this 1937 inscription is full of brilliance and sensitivity. Meanwhile there is the scintillating Saint-Saëns, playing of remarkable dexterity and élan.

Shellac noise has been retained throughout, and it’s a little higher in the Prélude, Aria and Finale than in some other pieces, but Cortot’s luminous tone emerges all the more clearly as a result. I wish some other restoration companies would appreciate that point. With Jonathan Summers producing a fine sleeve note this is, as you can by now appreciate, a really splendid disc.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, December 2010

Here is another rich vein of recordings from a bygone era, but preserving some of the interpretations for which Alfred Cortot became justly famous. The programme opens with some relatively light repertoire. Purcell’s little dance tunes are a surprise to find in recordings of this vintage, and it was the arranger A.M. Henderson, a former pupil of Cortot, whose mission was to create educational material and resurrect neglected work so that they could be played on the piano. Cortot was in baroque mood, having recorded the Bach transcriptions on this disc in the same studio just a few months earlier. He presents Purcell in an admirably playful and transparent style, unfussy but flexible, teasing out the expressive character and dance mood of the pieces without endowing them with unsuitable weight.

This is less true of the remarkable Concerto in D minor, BWV 596 which Bach had transcribed from a concerto by Vivaldi. As Jonathan Summers points out in his notes for this CD, Cortot’s version sounds like an organ transcription played on the piano, to the extent that some passages are actually quite difficult to get a grip on. The introduction Praeludium is particularly striking in this regard, the exploration of variation over the pedal bass almost turning into an example of lugubrious modern minimalism. Pounding bass and huge chord textures bring us closer to Liszt or Busoni than Bach in this performance, with even the expressive Sicilienne rich in extra octaves in places. This is an impressive example of Cortot’s pianism nonetheless, but revealing of the taste of the period, and very much a recording of its time. The beautiful Arioso which follows has a wonderful vocally expressive melodic line and a restraint in the accompaniment which allows the music to flow with elegance and freedom.

A day after the Bach recordings, Cortot was back for the two Mendelssohn recordings on this disc. This is the first of three he made of the Variations Sérieuses, Op. 54, and, while not without its technical flaws, is still a marvellously intelligent and expressively communicative recording. You can hear the stylistic gears change as Cortot adjusts to Mendelssohn’s more contrapuntal variations, the character of accompaniments lifting melodic lines beyond mere tunes, the extremes of mood portrayed with clear vision and almost tactile imaginative force. This would have been the better of two takes, but without the benefits of editing this has the feel more of a live performance than a cosmetically perfect studio recording. I love the energy though, and few pianists push the music this far to the outer edges of its expressive limits. In this Cortot really is the father of later greats like Horowitz.

Cortot’s recordings of César Franck stand as testimony to his greatness as a performer of this composer’s music. The two recording dates for the Prélude, Chorale and Fugue stem from an intensive series of sessions recorded on a rich sounding Pleyel piano in the Small Queen’s Hall in London. Along with a blistering schedule of other repertoire, the work was recorded complete on the 6th March 1929, and a number of re-takes were done on the 19th. Cortot’s renowned sense of form over the expanse of both of the Franck works is of course well in evidence here, but it is equally interesting to divine the ways in which Cortot is able to create atmosphere and perform with a feel of genuine poetry. Despite the technical blemishes which occasionally arise, there is a sense of balance and sensitivity even where textures thicken and climaxes create genuine musical storms. The same is true of the Prélude, Aria and Finale, where lightness of touch holds at least part of the secret in Cortot’s sympathy and effectiveness in Franck’s idiom. This slightly later EMI recording has less surface noise but a more nasal mid-range to the piano sound. The more clattery effect where dynamics rise is less flattering to Cortot’s touch, but it takes little effort to hear the inner contrasts and vocal lines of phrasing which makes the performance stand out as a true historical landmark. Especially the central Aria holds the attention with its sense of magic, the feeling that the music is being created on the spot – both improvisational and controlled, and very much from the heart. The programme ends with Saint-Saëns’ virtuoso show-stopper, the Étude en forme de Valse, this recording of which should remove any doubt one might have about Cortot’s technical abilities.

These early recordings do of course have their limitations, but with excellent mastering by an un-named expert I was pleasantly surprised at how good the sound was for artefacts of such a vintage. Alfred Cortot looks out at us from the cover with frightening intensity, and the recordings of Mendelssohn and especially Franck reflect this stare, which seems to be able to penetrate the soul and draw deepest from the creative wellsprings of each composer. The squeaky-clean technical expectations of recordings today are a considerable move away from the rough-hewn quality of some moments in Cortot’s playing, but this takes nothing from their historical significance. Anyone interested in the timeline of pianistic history should be aware of Alfred Cortot, and having his legacy spruced up and presented in Naxos’ Great Pianists edition is a real treat.

Bryce Morrison
Gramophone, December 2010

Gramophone Recommends

The glory of Cortot. The pianist’s pianist in a virtuoso miscellany

After five volumes of Cortot’s Chopin, Naxos continues with a miscellany dating from 1929 to 1937 of an incomparable glory. Made long before today’s scissors-and-paste, splicing-and-slicing productions, the playing scintillates with a quality and magic peculiarity Cortot’s own. Above all, Cortot was the greatest “singer” of the keyboard; the possessor of a ravishing cantabile of a haunting sweetness and intensity.

Everything here is delectable but the very disc itself would object if I did not single out the pianist’s arrangement of the Largo from Bach’s F minor Concerto, something for everyone’s desert island and enough to bring tears to the eyes of even the most puritan listener. Again, Cortot may have noted a quality he described with typical French irony as “an excess of incense and piety” in César Franck. But he was the supreme champion of his music and no other pianist has come closer to the emotional glow at the very heart of Franck’s genius. Hear him in the Prélude, aria et final and you will hear a rubato that tugs now gently, now urgently against the music’s line and impetus, its religious life seemingly improvised on the spot.

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, the concert-hall glitter and aplomb of Saint-Saëns Etude en forme de valse is thrown off with a virtuosity that even aroused Horowitz’s envy. This remains among the most dazzling jeux d’esprit on record. Naxos’s accompanying essay will appeal to the date-minded and Ward Marston has done his usual wonders with sound and restoration. Hopefully there will be much, much more Cortot to follow.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2010

Naxos make one of their occasional returns to the recorded legacy of the great French pianist, Alfred Cortot, here covering the period 1929—1937. Though born in Switzerland in 1877, he moved to Paris as a child and was always considered as an adopted musician. He was to become a man of many parts; a concert pianist, a highly respected conductor, part of the greatest piano trio of his time, a teacher and, here, an arranger. A penchant of being totally erratic boosted his stage image, his flights of fantasy often leaving his fingers unable to cope. Four short Purcell pieces pass on in their own cheerful way before we embark on Cortot’s attempt to emulate an organ in an arrangement of Bach’s Concerto in D minor, which was, in turn, a version of a Vivaldi concerto. A purely classical arrangement of the Largo from Bach’s Concerto in F minor arrives before a reading of Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses—the first of three recordings he made of the work—that tends to get rather overheated. To this point we have been in exceptionally fine 1937 recordings, but go back eight years for Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, and the sound difference is very obvious. Cortot was regarded as the leading Franck exponent of his day, and you can see why as we continue into the Prelude, Aria and Finale in improved 1932 quality, a rather restrained and sombre reading, that contrasts with the extrovert account of the Etude en forme de Valse by Saint-Saens. Not note perfect but great fun. The transfers, as we have come to expect, are immaculate.

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