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ClassicsOnline Home » CORTOT, Alfred: Recordings (1929-1937)
Ranked among the most insightful of pianists for his exploration of the spiritual depths of the music he interpreted, Alfred Cortot was a multi-faceted musician with a wide-ranging repertoire. This album couples small treasures such as the four miniatures by Purcell and Bach’s transcription of a Vivaldi Concerto, with masterpieces by Mendelssohn and Franck, of whose music Cortot was one of the greatest exponents. In Cortot’s hands, even Saint-Saëns’s technically demanding Étude en forme de Valse poses no obstacles to his enviable lightness of touch.
Great Pianists: Alfred Cortot (1877–1962)
PURCELL • BACH • MENDELSSOHN • FRANCK • SAINT-SAËNS
The son of a French father and Swiss mother, Alfred Cortot was born in Nyon, Switzerland in 1877. During his childhood the family moved to Paris and young Alfred joined the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine where he studied piano firstly with Emile Descombes (1829–1912) and, from the age of fifteen, with Louis Diémer (1843–1919). Cortot made his début in 1897 with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, and gave piano duet recitals with Edouard Risler (1873–1929) playing arrangements for four hands of music by Wagner. His enthusiasm for the German composer led to his appointment as choral coach, then assistant conductor at Bayreuth working under Felix Mottl and Hans Richter. Cortot’s experiences in Bayreuth left him eager to introduce Wagner’s music to French audiences, and in 1902 he founded the Société des Festivals Lyriques, through which in May of the same year he conducted the Paris première of Götterdämmerung. The following year Cortot organized another society enabling him to give performances of major works such as Brahms’s Requiem, Liszt’s St Elisabeth, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Wagner’s Parsifal, and not long after he became conductor of the Société Nationale, promoting works by contemporary French composers.
Cortot was a multi-faceted musician, a conductor and chamber music player as well as solo pianist. He formed a famous piano trio with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals, but it was as a pianist for which he became renowned. He was appointed by Gabriel Fauré to a teaching post at the Paris Conservatoire, but was in such demand as a performer that he was invariably away on tour. In 1918 Cortot made his first tour of America, and during his second tour in 1920 he played all five of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos in two evenings and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, with the composer present. Also at this time he founded the Ecole Normale de Musique for which he appointed a hand-picked staff. Cortot himself taught there until 1961; his most famous students include Magda Tagliaferro, Clara Haskil and Yvonne Lefébure.
A.M. Henderson, born in 1879, was a Glaswegian musician, remembered primarily for his volume of Musical Memories and his educational editions of music for the piano. A substantial output included six volumes of Rediscovered Classics for the Piano, and various volumes of Old English Masters, Early Classic Masters, Masterpieces of Russian Piano Music, Graded Piano Duets from the Classical Masters, as well as three volumes of his own transcriptions for piano from the works of Bach. Henderson was organist and choirmaster at the University of Glasgow and had studied organ with Widor. His piano teachers were no less impressive as he received tuition from Scharwenka, Pugno and Cortot. It was this last association that led Henderson to dedicate ‘To my friend M. Alfred Cortot’ his volume of fifteen Popular Pieces for the Piano by Purcell in 1938. Henderson was keen to make available music he thought unjustly neglected in practical editions. As he states in his Foreword ‘Although Purcell is generally regarded as the greatest of English composers…his keyboard music and many fine pieces for strings are still far too little known and played.’ He makes no bones about this not being a scholarly edition, ‘This edition being intended entirely for practical purposes, and not simply as an historical document, the pieces have been carefully revised, edited, and fingered. Only in this way, I felt, could the book be of real value to both teacher and pupil…It will interest and encourage young students especially, to know that the pieces in this book have already been seen, appreciated, and played by such distinguished artists as Cortot, Marcel Dupré, Medtner and Rachmaninoff.
Cortot selected four pieces in the same key and recorded them on a Steinway piano. Five months earlier, in May 1937, he was in the same studio recording other baroque works in transcriptions for piano. On the 18 May (in a session that included a recording of Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze) he recorded a concerto by Vivaldi that had been arranged by Bach for organ as Concerto in D minor, BWV 596. According to the session sheets the title is ‘Transcription of Concerto da Camera (Vivaldi, trans. Cortot) although Cortot’s arrangement sounds like a transcription of an organ work and he probably used the Bach score. After this he recorded his own arrangement for solo piano of the Largo movement from Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056, as ‘Aria from Concerto in F minor (Bach trans. Cortot)’. The following day Cortot made his first of three recordings of Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses with a Song without Words as a filler for the last side. After making two takes of each side he then ended the session by making one of his most famous recordings, Liszt’s St Françoise de Paule marchant sur les flots (Naxos 8.112012).
Cortot was one of the greatest exponents of the music of César Franck and his recordings of the Variations Symphoniques and the two masterpieces for solo piano Prélude, Chorale and Fugue and Prélude, Aria and Finale still stand among the most impressive committed to disc, as Cortot knows exactly how to handle a large structure and communicate the dark brooding mystery at the heart of these works. Between the 6th and the 19 March 1929 Cortot had four recording sessions at the Small Queen’s Hall in London using a Pleyel piano. On the 6 March he recorded all four sides of the Prélude, Chorale and Fugue and Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques. At the second session he recorded Chopin’s Four Ballades; at the third, Liszt’s Piano Sonata with a Chopin Nocturne and Waltz, and at the fourth made retakes including sides one, three and four of the Franck work. Also during this time in London he performed Franck’s Piano Quintet on the 12 March and Franck’s Variations Symphoniques at the Queen’s Hall on the 21 March with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Thomas Beecham. A description of the latter performance perfectly sums up the pianist’s playing of Franck: ‘M. Cortot’s clarity of mind gives to his playing its unique architectural quality; he builds before your very ears an edifice whose plan you know quite well but whose formal perfection is now newly revealed.’
In May and June 1930 Cortot devoted five days to recording in Paris, where he set down, amongst other things, Franck’s Prélude, Aria and Finale and Saint-Saëns’s Etude en forme de Valse, Op. 52, No. 6, but it appears that none of the material from these sessions was issued. A year later, at the Small Queen’s Hall, he recorded both works again, the Saint-Saëns being issued. Those who doubt Cortot’s technique need look no further than his recording of this technically demanding work where he dismisses all obstacles with a lightness of touch. It was not until March 1932, with Cortot playing a Blüthner piano, that a satisfactory result was achieved with the Franck, although some of the sides required between four and seven takes.
© 2010 Jonathan Summers
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CORTOT, Alfred: Recordings (1929-1937)