> Alfred Cortot. The Late Recordings. Volume 1 [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Alfred Cortot. The Late Recordings. Volume 1
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Nocturne No 15 in F Minor Op 55/1
Nocturne No 16 in E Flat Op 55/2 [two takes, one unpublished]
Trois Nouvelles Etudes
Prelude No 25 in C Sharp minor Op 45
Polonaise No 7 in A Flat Op 61 (Polonaise Fantasie)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Children’s Corner
La cathédrale engloutie
Alfred Cortot, piano
Recorded Studio 3, Abbey Road, London October 1947
APR 5571 [66’53]


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Cortot’s reappearance at the end of the War was fraught with recrimination concerning the nature and extent of his conduct under the Vichy regime. At a tribunal he was suspended from appearing in Paris for one year – a ban that effectively banished Cortot from the capital until April 1946 but was in fact effective until the beginning of 1947 as union pressure led to the cancellation of a concerto engagement. In the event, after a piano recital, Cortot wasn’t to play in Paris again until 1949. In the interim he cast around to continue his recording life, but ran into material shortages in London. Only two waxes per side were possible during his 1947 sessions with the exception of greater luxury in two of the Chopin sides, the E Flat Nocturne and the fearsome Polonaise Op 61, which both ran to three takes. As Bryan Crimp’s notes explain the recordings were not entirely smooth. Cortot was ill, somewhat unreliable and the atmosphere throughout was somewhat less than sympathetic to the Frenchman (Crimp cites engineer David Bicknell’s intolerance toward Cortot’s self-evident fallibility). Indeed tolerance is explicitly entreated throughout towards Cortot’s pianism – and occasionally this is just. What emerges once more, however, despite the finger slips and sometimes blustering playing is, simply, just how beautiful a musician he was until the very end.

Kinderszenen is full of subtle pointing, the simplicity of his rubato in Von fremden Landern und Menschen and the teasing show of Kuriose Geschichte but a glimpse into his range of romantic devices. He characterises each piece with sovereign skill and can conjure up a depth of bass sonorities (as in Wichtige Begebenheit) as well as bring out with unselfconscious rightness inner voicings (listen to Ritter vom Steckenpferd) Fast zu ernst ends with a touchingly rapt simplicity and the final scene with an inwardness and truthfulness tinged with fantasy that animates Cortot’s playing throughout. The F Minor Nocturne is played with unexaggerated and well-scaled intimacy and its companion exists in two takes. The issued take is notable for a range of tone colours and a properly reflective tempo; the unissued take, being in poorer aural condition, sounds somewhat recessed and wooden and with a few finger slips. The three Nouvelles etudes are similarly unissued – and very valuable to have. Again there are slips, but the level of characterization is again of a superior level; his little light staccato shafts and milky treble runs flecking the music with colour and nuance (I particularly commend the D Flat, No 3 in this respect). The C Sharp Minor Prelude is again an invaluable addition to the discography – another of the 10th November sessions not to be issued, as is the Polonaise-Fantasie. This is conjecturally supposed to have rushed Cortot because it was to have been issued over two 12" sides. What remains unequivocally true is that it sounds too fast, there’s a lot of rubato, some unwelcome, and from 8’50 a real technical pile up. Finally in the Debussy he is dazzlingly colouristic, using the pedal to optimum effect and in the Golliwog’s Cake-walk consumed with rhythmic élan. This is the first volume in a series that documents that relatively overlooked post-War Cortot discography. Despite all the political complications, the errant fingers and poor health he remains sui generis and an unforgettably great musician.

Jonathan Woolf

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