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Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Twenty-Four Préludesa (1836-38) [34:21]; Prélude in C sharp minor, Op. 45b (1841) [4:07]; Berceuse in D flat, Op. 57b (1843/4) [4:08]; Impromptusc (1837-42) – No. 1 in A flat, Op. 29 [3:45]; No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 36 [4:27]; No. 3 in G flat, Op. 51 [4:52]; Fantaisie-Impromptu in C sharp minor, Op. 66c (1835) [4:34]; Barcarolle in F sharp, Op. 60c (1846) [7:52]
Alfred Cortot (piano)
rec. No. 3 Studio, Abbey Road, London, a 5 July, 20 June 1933; b 4 November 1949; c5 July 1933. ADD

These are, indeed, classic recordings. The present GROC begins with Cortot's 1933/4 complete traversal of the Préludes. This was his second; there is an earlier version from 1926. The remastering engineer, Andrew Walter, has (re)produced a sound of great clarity and yet depth. It is instructive to compare the present Barcarolle transfer with Mark Obert-Thorn's on the recent Naxos Cortot 78rpm Recordings, Volume 3 (8.111052). The piano on the Naxos seems a lot closer, and more of the hiss is preserved. It is, in fact, immediately more involving but the more welcoming EMI sound might well be preferred by some. Great that we have the choice!
The Op. 28 Préludes represent a wonderful statement of Cortot's art. There are approximate passages, to be sure, but if ever there was a case for keeping wrong notes in takes, this is surely it. Cortot plays as if possessed, right from the very first, turbulent, Prélude. There is an immediate sense of rightness, a thread that continued throughout the ever-changing landscape of the ensuing 23 miniatures. The pitch of the transfer is rock-steady for the A minor's plaintive single lines, while No. 4 is the essence of dolente - particularly the close. If No. 5 in D major could possibly be even more off-the-cuff, all doubts are effectively smashed by the next Prélude's flighty fingerwork. Cortot seems to have an infinite number of tonal shades available and can conjure up the most amazing peace (the F sharp, No. 13) as well as pure cheekiness (No. 10's right hand!). The so-called 'Raindrop' (No. 15) is marked by its exquisite textures, while it is the lyric impulse that so impresses in the A flat, No. 17. The F minor(No. 18)'s play on recitative makes it one of the more purely dramatic of the cycle. Ironically, it is only the final Prélude that disappoints. It begins in the darkest nether regions of D minor, but fails to blaze sufficiently towards the end.
The Berceuse and the Op. 45 Prélude were recorded on the same day. Both are gloriously dark-toned. The Berceuse's decorations glisten in the sun, though! The set of Impromptus - including Cortot's second recordings of Opp. 29 and 36 - is a miracle in itself. Listen to how Cortot projects the 'chorale' of Op. 29 just enough, without forcing, or how the intimacy of the G flat comes across - some astonishing leggiero in the right-hand.
Bryce Morrison's booklet notes are predictably laudatory but also rather vague – there is little discographical scholarship here. Cortot's playing is what this disc is about, however, and while one listens he almost always convinces one that his is the true way. Superb.
Colin Clarke

EMI Great Recordings of the Century page



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