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Alfred Cortot - The Late Recordings: Volumes 2-4
see end of review for contents
rec. 1947-54
APR 5572-74 [79:02 & 76:24 & 72:56]

In their different ways APR and Naxos have been covering something of the same territory in Cortot studies - not that they are alone, as EMI has recently issued capacious boxes devoted to the pianist. Toshiba and Shinseido amongst Japanese companies have also been busy. APR has been working structurally through the recorded legacy and here are volumes 2, 3 and 4 in their ‘Late Recordings’ marque.
 
Volume 2 is rather fascinating for a number of reasons. An appendix compiles new takes that were selected for LP from the original sessions which had produced 78 sides. Those chosen are the ones that show most disparity between the 78 sides and the subsequent LP release. The Bach Aria, for instance is much faster in the LP take and has less deeply etched bass tone. It’s more equalized and hardly represents Cortot’s true tone. A more conventional sound world emerges from these LP takes. I think most admirers of the pianist will much prefer the 78 versions, not least the deftly witty Schumann. The previously unpublished Franck Prélude, Aria et Final is a real find, recorded in 1947, and showing the pianist in powerfully energised form with a conception that is both convincing and towering. Unfortunately one side hasn’t survived so there is a good segue into his earlier 1932 version. Yes, we go from the 1947 Steinway to the 1932 Blüthner and back again, but never mind. His 1949 Debussy Préludes are heard in not-so-great sound due largely to deficiencies in the material used for the matrices. The playing itself is full of felicity and fancy, full textured pearly tone and deep, heroically pointed accents. This performance fully deserves to stand beside the 1937 recording of the Préludes, though there are few obvious interpretative divergences.
 
Chopin is the focus of volume 3, recorded between 1949 and 1951. APR has sequenced the works in such a way that the Nocturnes, Preludes, Waltzes and Etudes run in sets, even when recorded at different sessions. Thus, for example, the three Nocturnes with which the disc starts contain music recorded at two sessions, two years apart. The superbly desynchronised chordal playing was beginning to seem interpretatively passé by now - but only to those for whom sleek chording and impersonalised playing was the thing - and the depth of Cortot’s tonal resources is still remarkable, and so too the songful treble. The F major is especially beautiful. It was the sessions’ supervisor, David Bicknell, who encouraged Cortot to record tried and trusted repertoire, a tactic that was not always to Cortot’s liking, but which reflected HMV’s nervousness as to the sustainability of the pianist’s technique. True, the 1933 Abbey Road recording of the Barcarolle is more convincing, and fleeter than this 1951 remake but two decades had passed by, after all. There are some thumps in the D flat major Waltz from November 1949 and the A minor Waltz (October 195) sounds strangely hollow. Do not overlook Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, in this conspicuously successful 1950 recording.

Regarding volume 4, Cortot often reprised works in the studio, sometimes multiply so. Both the Ländler and Litanie, for instance, were recorded in London in 1937 and are presented by Naxos (8.112012) and in truth they are artistically superior to these early 1950s remakes, fine and enjoyable though they are on their own terms. We also have a bracing May 1953 Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No.11. Of rather more significance is the recording he made at the same time, of Carnaval. Cortot set down this work three times - 1923, 1928 and, here, once again, 1953, mirroring the three recordings he left of the Piano Concerto. This last recording is a noble study but vitiated by wrong notes to such an extent that it does intrude; approximations in the Marche des Davidsbündler are the order of the day, not the exception. If you can listen through these well-worn Cortotisms you will still find much to excite the poetic instinct, albeit the early electric of 1928 is the place to go for a more comprehensive account of his way with the work.

APR groups the works into composer sequences; therefore we are not presented with a chronological run of recordings. Thus it is that we can hear the Chopin recordings of, in the main, June and July 1954 - the exception is the slow movement of the B flat minor sonata, recorded on the same day as Carnaval. Single movements from the sonatas were released, and various pieces were attempted by Cortot, by now beginning to suffer from Parkinson’s Disease, and not completed. The Etudes evince something of his youthful brio and the Tarantelle in A flat major is attractively dispatched. Documentation is good and the transfers too, though I marginally prefer the competing Naxos Carnaval.
 
These discs trace Cortot in the studio between 1947 and 1954 and reflect the vicissitudes of the time, and sometimes the toll taken on the pianist himself. They also contain much transcendent pianism and offer a concentrated focus on his post-war legacy.
 
Jonathan Woolf

Disc contents
Volume 2

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
“Aria” (Concerto in F minor, BWV1056 - Adagio); arr. Cortot [2:59]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
“Minuet” (Harpsichord Suites 1 and 8 - Minuets) arr. Cortot [2:15]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Litanie arr. Cortot [3:25]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Vogel als Prophet, Op.82/7 [2:39]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne in F sharp, Op.15/2 [3:17]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Wiegenlied arr. Cortot [2:26]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Prélude, Aria et Final (previously unpublished) [20:26]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Préludes Book One [32:57]
Appendix: 1948 ‘encores’ in LP version
BACH arr. Cortot “Aria” (Concerto in F minor, BWV1056 - Adagio); PURCELL arr. Cortot “Minuet” (Harpsichord Suites1 & 8 - Minuets); SCHUMANN Vogel als Prophet, Op.82/7
rec. 1947-49, London

Volume 3
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne No.2 in E flat major Op.9/2 [4:08]
Nocturne No.4 in F major Op 15/1 [4:24]
Nocturne No.7 in C sharp minor Op 27/1 [4:33]
Etude in E major Op 10/3 [4:04]
Etude in C sharp minor Op 10/4 [2:14]
Etude in F minor Op 25/2 [1:33]
Trois Nouvelles Etudes [1:50 + 1:39 + 1:46]
Barcarolle in F sharp minor Op 60 [8:17]
Prelude No.15 in D flat major Op 28 (Raindrop) [4:34]
Prelude No.25 in C sharp minor Op 45 [4:01]
Berceuse in D flat major Op 57 [4:04]
Waltz No.3 in A minor Op 34/2 [4:14]
Waltz No.6 in D flat major Op 64/1 (Minute) [1:33]
Waltz No.9 in A flat major Op 69/1 [2:54]
Waltz No.9 in A flat major Op 69/1 [2:53]
Waltz No.11 in G flat major Op 70/1 [2:33]
Waltz No.12 in F minor Op 70/2 [2:05]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Variations sérieuses in D minor Op 54 [10:55]
Alfred Cortot (piano)
rec. 1949-51, London

Volume 4
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Moment musical in F minor D780/3 [1:43]
12 Deutsche Ländler D790 [8:59]
Litanie auf das Fest Aller Seelen D343 arranged by Alfred Cortot [3:26]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Hungarian Rhapsody No.11 S244/11 [4:57]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Carnaval Op.9 (1834) [25:38]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne in F sharp major Op.15/2 [3:12]
Etude in G flat major Op.10/5 Black Keys [1:42]
Etude in F minor Op.25/2 [1:34]
Etude in G flat major Op.25/9 Butterfly [1:05]
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor Op 35 - Marche funèbre only [5:45]
Tarantelle in A flat major Op.43 [3:16]
Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor Op.58 - Largo only [7:20]
Waltz in C sharp minor Op.64/2 [3:00]
Alfred Cortot (piano)
rec. 1951-54, EMI Abbey Road, London 


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