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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Chopin: Alfred Cortotís 78 rpm recordings - Vol.1

24 Preludes, Op.28 [33:47]
rec. 22-23 March 1926 in HMV Studio A, Hayes
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.45 [4:12]
rec. 4 November 1949 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No.3, London
Prelude in D flat major, Op.28, No.15 [4:44]
rec. 30 October 1950 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No.3, London
Berceuse in D flat major, Op.57 [4:09]
rec. 4 November 1949 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No.3, London
Impromptus [17:59]
rec. 5 July 1933 EMI in Abbey Road Studio No.3, London
Tarantelle in A flat major Op.43 [3:11]
Alfred Cortot
rec. 13 May 1931 in Studio C, Queenís Small Hall, London
NAXOS 8.111023 [68:03]

This volume is the first of five to be devoted to Cortotís 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 peopleís 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 Cortotís 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-Thornís 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 Cortotís interpretation.

There are some messy moments on these recordings, and commentators have often noted the technical inaccuracies in Cortotís 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 Cortotís poetic approach to playing Chopin brings us close to Chopinís 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 Ė 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 collectorís 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 Iím granted the privilege of listening to a disc like this the question is raised, Ďwhat is it that makes a great pianist great?í There will always be controversy and divisions of opinion, but the persuasive argument for me here is Cortotís ability to make Chopin solid and tangible, to communicate his art both on an earthily human as well as an elevated poetic level Ė simultaneously. Thatís not something you can find every day, is it?

Dominy Clements




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