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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Twenty-Four Preludes Op.28 [33.47] 1
Prelude in C sharp minor Op.45 [4.12] 2
Prelude in D flat major Op.28 No.15 [4.44] 3
Berceuse in D flat major Op.57 [4.09] 2
Impromptus: No 1 in A flat major Op.29 [3.47]; No.2 in F sharp majorOp.36 [5.01]; No.3 in G flat major Op.51 [4.32] 4
Fantasie-Impromptu in C sharp minor Op.66 [4.39] 4
Tarantelle in A flat major Op.43 [3.11] 5
Alfred Cortot (piano)
rec. 1 HMV Studio A, Hayes, London, 22-23 March 1926; 2 EMI Abbey Road Studio No.3, London, 4 November 1949; 3 EMI Abbey Road Studio No.3, London, 30 October 1950; 4 EMI Abbey Road Studio No.3, London, 5 July 1933; 5 Studio C, Queenís Small Hall, London, 13 May 1931
NAXOS 8.111023 [68:03]

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In 1949 the English poet Basil Bunting - a music critic in his youth, incidentally - wrote a poem ĎOn the Fly-Leaf of Poundís Cantosí, in which he recognised the centrality, the inescapability of Ezra Poundís achievement in that poem. Buntingís 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 Ė should - surely be said about Cortotís recordings of Chopin. No other pianist has done so much to shape the modern performance of Chopin. That isnít, 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 couldnít become a major twentieth century poet in ignorance of Poundís 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 Cortotís 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. Thereís the tragic scope and intensity of Cortotís interpretation of the A flat major prelude (no.17); thereís 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 Cortotís 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.

Cortotís 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 Ė 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. Thereís evidence of them here, but I donít find that they are more than relatively minor blemishes.

The sound quality is surprisingly good, and given the compelling nature of the music making oneís 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 Ö
Ö There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!

Cortotís Chopin performances will certainly endure and it would, indeed, be foolish to try to Ďavoidí them.

See also reviews by Jonathan Woolf and Dominy Clements .

Glyn Pursglove


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