Great Pianists - Alfred Cortot
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Minuet in G major [2:21]
Sicilienne in G minor [1:01]
Gavotte in G major [1:09]
Air in G major [1:20]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concerto in D minor BWV696 after Vivaldi’s Concerto Op.3 No.11 [9:57]
Arioso arr. From Largo from Concerto in F minor BWV1056 [3:05]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Variations Sérieuses Op.54 [10:46]
Song without Words in E Op.19 No.1 [3:32]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Prélude, choral et fugue (1884) [17:11]
Prélude, Aria and Finale [20:54]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Etude en forme de Valse Op.52 No.6 [4:32]
Alfred Cortot (piano)
rec. 1929-37, Abbey Road, and Small Queen’s Hall, London
NAXOS 8.111381 [75:47]

If you are not compiling a chronological series of recordings, and are instead working on programming a series of discrete and attractively selected examples from a musician’s repertoire, you sometimes have to work hard. If that’s been the case in Naxos’s case I haven’t noticed, because each disc has a very cogent recital look, whether concentrating on a single composer or linking things thematically or in other ways. This preamble applies generally, but also to this particular and latest example of the Naxos Cortot series.

The introduction moves from Purcell to Bach, then we enter the classical period with Mendelssohn, and take in pungent examples of Franck’s Wagnerian inspiration before ending on an encore note with Saint-Saëns. As I said then, this is an especially satisfying programme, one that wears well on repeated listening – should one wish to listen thus – and comes in at 75 minutes on the clock.

Things begin with the Purcell arrangements made by A.M Henderson, who was much given to making editions for wide dissemination and popular success. Choirmaster at the University of Glasgow, he’d studied the organ with Widor and the piano with Pugno and Cortot, and it was to the latter that he dedicated his ‘Popular Pieces for Piano’. These are not the most searching pieces ever written, but Henderson’s aim in arranging them was practical not scholarly, and they work well. Cortot plays them with a lovely spring to the rhythm and with great simplicity and warmth, but with no attempt at over-inflation. The Bach concerto performance (after Vivaldi) is truly leonine and magnificent in its sonorous, declamatory power. The central Sicilienne is equally persuasive, whilst the Toccata finale is a splendid example of the pianist at full throttle. It reminded me of the comment made to me by a pianist friend who said that Cortot’s major slips came in works he knew and performed often – because he didn’t practice them assiduously – but when it came to things that might not be so central to his repertoire he got down to serious practising and slips were minimised. I don’t know if that is a widespread conception but listening to this Bach-Vivaldi and to the Franck pieces – magnificently played – it does bears a certain weight.

As for the two Franck pieces, there’s no doubting their superb conception. His pedalling in the Prélude, choral et fugue is marvellously controlled, whilst the sonority, and the timbral weight remain limpid and light, the tempo forward-moving but not insistent. The playing is of full intensity, and it’s beautifully expressive in the Choral, accelerating into the Fugue with reserves of energy and dynamism. It’s true that we can hear some textual emendations – they’re mainly registral – but the conception as a whole is marvellously compelling. His Mendelssohn Variations Sérieuses is one of three recordings he left of it – the last can be found on APR5573 – but this 1937 inscription is full of brilliance and sensitivity. Meanwhile there is the scintillating Saint-Saëns, playing of remarkable dexterity and élan.

Shellac noise has been retained throughout, and it’s a little higher in the Prélude, Aria and Finale than in some other pieces, but Cortot’s luminous tone emerges all the more clearly as a result. I wish some other restoration companies would appreciate that point. With Jonathan Summers producing a fine sleeve note this is, as you can by now appreciate, a really splendid disc.

Jonathan Woolf

A really splendid disc.