Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) (arr. Henderson)
Minuet in G major [2:21]
Sicilienne in G minor [1:01]
Gavotte in G major [1:09]
Air in G major [1:20]
rec. 26 October 1937, EMI Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, London
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) (arr. Cortot)
Concerto in D minor, BWV 596 (after Vivaldi Concerto Op. 3, No. 11) [9:57]
rec. 18 May 1937, EMI Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, London
Arioso (Arrangement of Largo from Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056) [3:05]
rec. 18 May 1937, EMI Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, London
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Variations Sérieuses, Op. 54 (1841) [10:46]

Song Without Words in E, Op. 19, No. 1 (from Bk.1, 1825-45) [3:32]
rec. 19 May 1937, EMI Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, London
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Prélude, Chorale and Fugue (1884) [17:11]
rec. 6, 19 March 1929, Small Queen’s Hall, London
Mats. Cc 15975/78; Cat. DB 1299/1300
Prélude, Aria and Finale (1886-87) [20:54]
rec. 8 March 1932, EMI Studio No. 3, Abbey Road, London
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Étude en forme de Valse, Op. 52, No. 6 (1877) [4:32]
rec. 13 May 1931, Small Queen’s Hall, London
Alfred Cortot (piano)
rec. see listing for details.
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111381 [75:47] [DC]

Here is another rich vein of recordings from a bygone era, but preserving some of the interpretations for which Alfred Cortot became justly famous. The programme opens with some relatively light repertoire. Purcell’s little dance tunes are a surprise to find in recordings of this vintage, and it was the arranger A.M. Henderson, a former pupil of Cortot, whose mission was to create educational material and resurrect neglected work so that they could be played on the piano. Cortot was in baroque mood, having recorded the Bach transcriptions on this disc in the same studio just a few months earlier. He presents Purcell in an admirably playful and transparent style, unfussy but flexible, teasing out the expressive character and dance mood of the pieces without endowing them with unsuitable weight.

This is less true of the remarkable Concerto in D minor, BWV 596 which Bach had transcribed from a concerto by Vivaldi. As Jonathan Summers points out in his notes for this CD, Cortot’s version sounds like an organ transcription played on the piano, to the extent that some passages are actually quite difficult to get a grip on. The introduction Praeludium is particularly striking in this regard, the exploration of variation over the pedal bass almost turning into an example of lugubrious modern minimalism. Pounding bass and huge chord textures bring us closer to Liszt or Busoni than Bach in this performance, with even the expressive Sicilienne rich in extra octaves in places. This is an impressive example of Cortot’s pianism nonetheless, but revealing of the taste of the period, and very much a recording of its time. The beautiful Arioso which follows has a wonderful vocally expressive melodic line and a restraint in the accompaniment which allows the music to flow with elegance and freedom.

A day after the Bach recordings, Cortot was back for the two Mendelssohn recordings on this disc. This is the first of three he made of the Variations Sérieuses, Op. 54, and, while not without its technical flaws, is still a marvellously intelligent and expressively communicative recording. You can hear the stylistic gears change as Cortot adjusts to Mendelssohn’s more contrapuntal variations, the character of accompaniments lifting melodic lines beyond mere tunes, the extremes of mood portrayed with clear vision and almost tactile imaginative force. This would have been the better of two takes, but without the benefits of editing this has the feel more of a live performance than a cosmetically perfect studio recording. I love the energy though, and few pianists push the music this far to the outer edges of its expressive limits. In this Cortot really is the father of later greats like Horowitz.

Cortot’s recordings of César Franck stand as testimony to his greatness as a performer of this composer’s music. The two recording dates for the Prélude, Chorale and Fugue stem from an intensive series of sessions recorded on a rich sounding Pleyel piano in the Small Queen’s Hall in London. Along with a blistering schedule of other repertoire, the work was recorded complete on the 6th March 1929, and a number of re-takes were done on the 19th. Cortot’s renowned sense of form over the expanse of both of the Franck works is of course well in evidence here, but it is equally interesting to divine the ways in which Cortot is able to create atmosphere and perform with a feel of genuine poetry. Despite the technical blemishes which occasionally arise, there is a sense of balance and sensitivity even where textures thicken and climaxes create genuine musical storms. The same is true of the Prélude, Aria and Finale, where lightness of touch holds at least part of the secret in Cortot’s sympathy and effectiveness in Franck’s idiom. This slightly later EMI recording has less surface noise but a more nasal mid-range to the piano sound. The more clattery effect where dynamics rise is less flattering to Cortot’s touch, but it takes little effort to hear the inner contrasts and vocal lines of phrasing which makes the performance stand out as a true historical landmark. Especially the central Aria holds the attention with its sense of magic, the feeling that the music is being created on the spot – both improvisational and controlled, and very much from the heart. The programme ends with Saint-Saëns’ virtuoso show-stopper, the Étude en forme de Valse, this recording of which should remove any doubt one might have about Cortot’s technical abilities.

These early recordings do of course have their limitations, but with excellent mastering by an un-named expert I was pleasantly surprised at how good the sound was for artefacts of such a vintage. Alfred Cortot looks out at us from the cover with frightening intensity, and the recordings of Mendelssohn and especially Franck reflect this stare, which seems to be able to penetrate the soul and draw deepest from the creative wellsprings of each composer. The squeaky-clean technical expectations of recordings today are a considerable move away from the rough-hewn quality of some moments in Cortot’s playing, but this takes nothing from their historical significance. Anyone interested in the timeline of pianistic history should be aware of Alfred Cortot, and having his legacy spruced up and presented in Naxos’ Great Pianists edition is a real treat.

Dominy Clements

A real treat.