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Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, August 2009

WEBER, C.M. von: Piano Sonata No. 2 / LISZT, F.: Piano Sonata / SCHUBERT, F.: 12 Deutsche (Landler) (Cortot) (1931–1948)

CHOPIN, F.: Piano Sonata No. 2 / SCHUMANN, R.: Kinderszenen / Carnaval (Cortot) (1953)

Naxos continues its own restoration of Cortot’s recordings with this brace. The cover art may have changed but the rationale is unbending; good programming, fine transfers. The first disc under discussion [8.112012] takes that seismic, pioneering 1939 Liszt Sonata recording, the first ever. It has never been surpassed for its sheer speed, just one of the most startling components of this quiveringly magnetic, ultra-Romanticised performance, one demarcated by some digital limitations and a kinetic, tersely driven spontaneity. It’s galvanising, if exhausting. The Weber sonata recording is an example of classic Cortot. It enshrines playing of ripe and rich colouration, ineffable touch, and powerful sympathy for the idiom, but also a number of mis-hits that will prove irksome to the more fastidious listener. This volume also gives us some more elevated examples of Cortot’s non-Chopin repertoire. The Légende and La leggierezza are fully the equal of the Sonata in their kaleidoscopic evocations whilst his own arrangement of Schubert’s Litanei auf das Feur Aller Seelen is a study in tonal warmth, the Ländler D790 shows his buoyancy and rhythmic vitality.

The companion disc [8.111327] gives, in part, his ‘Last Words’ on canonic repertoire. Kinderszenen was a discographic constant; recorded in 1935, 1947 and here in 1953. This final traversal is artful and laced with expansive rubati, richly characterised and strongly voiced. It builds to a moving envoi, having given an unsentimentalised Träumerei, a staunchly voiced Ritter vom Steckenpferd and a Furchtenmachen that focuses on its eruptiveness and almost spectral fright, as well as eloquently controlled pedalling in Der Dichter spricht. Cortot also set down Carnaval three times—1923, 1928 and, here, once again, 1953. This last recording is a noble study but vitiated by wrong notes to such an extent that it does intrude; approximations in the Marche des Davidsbündler are the order of the day, not the exception. But if you can listen through these well-worn Cortotisms you will still find much to excite the poetic instinct, albeit the early electric of 1928 is the place to go for a more comprehensive account of his way with the work.

The Chopin Second Sonata received no fewer than five recordings; 1928, 1933, 1952, 1953 (this one) and 1956. It was a strenuous two days’ recording in May 1953 for the seventy-five year old pianist because he set down all these three strenuous works in that period. The Sonata is subject to Cortot’s arsenal of emendations—including quite a few added bass octaves—but the tonal and expressive qualities of the playing are richly intact, even in this near valedictory statement. For all the digital slips the power and refinement of the playing are never in doubt, not least in the reverentially spun B section of the Funeral March. Again you will need the earlier recordings for a fuller and more comprehensive example of his playing of the Sonata—but this recording is no mere pendant, no matter what the failings may be.

Naxos’s transfers are good. When comparison has allowed I’ve listened to them alongside EMI’s own restorations, not least in their Icon box; Naxos retains a higher grain of surface noise but EMI’s own transfer seems cut at a lower level (the Liszt Sonata); the EMI is steelier than the Naxos in the Légende, with the latter preferable; or can be steelier. La leggierezza is much more ‘present’ in Naxos’s work.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2009

There are mannerisms, passionate outbursts that are in danger of overheating, and moments when fingers miss their objective, yet you are never in doubt that in Alfred Cortot’s account of the Liszt B minor Sonata we are in the presence of greatness. It was conceived as a monumental masterpiece, Cortot thundering around the piano, his hard-hitting playing creating massive climatic moments, yet equally achieving passages of poetic beauty. Born in Switzerland in 1877, Cortot moved to Paris as a child and was always considered as a multi-talented French musician. There is some confusion in the review copy as to the date of the recording, but I guess it is the 1929 date. The disc’s other major work is Cortot’s unfussy view of Weber’s Second Sonata, a work once popular among virtuoso performers. It is here presented in just one recorded performance without correction, and illustrates how much he enjoyed working in spontaneous conditions where small glitches were allowed to remain. Among the five short fillers Cortot produces exquisite bell-like textures for a fast and impeccable account of Liszt’s La leggierezza, and a beguiling Wiegenlied by Brahms The transfers are immaculate and Ward Marston has again waved his magic wand in creating sound acceptable to lovers of the latest technology.

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