Alfred Cortot plays Chopin

Author: 
Bryce Morrison

Alfred Cortot plays Chopin

  • (4) Ballades
  • Nocturnes, No. 2 in E flat, Op. 9/2
  • Sonata for Piano No. 2, 'Funeral March'
  • Sonata for Piano No. 3
  • Invitation to the Dance (Aufforderung zum Tanze)
  • Sonata for Piano No. 2
  • Variations sérieuses
  • (48) Songs without Words, No. 1, Andante con moto in E
  • Piano Trio No. 1

Has there ever been a more bewitching or endearing virtuoso than Alfred Cortot? His touch (an old-fashioned word but one inseparable from the man) was of a crystalline clarity, his coloration alive with myriad tints and hues. Combined with a poetic passion that knew no limits, such qualities created an idiosyncrasy and style that usually survived a fallible and bewilderingly confused keyboard mechanism. The truth is that Cortot had neither the time nor the inclination to polish his performances to a high degree of perfection. His hyperactive life (conductor, teacher, editor, writer and, more darkly, politician) made systematic practice a luxury. This, together with a gremlin who mischievously deflected his fingers away from the right notes—often at crucial if surprisingly undemanding points in the musical argument—added piquant harmonies and dissonances undreamed of by his composers. Cortot's left hand in particular had a way of drifting in and out of focus (two rather than three beats in his gossamer rhythmic support in many of the Chopin waltzes) and leading a wayward and disobedient life of its own. Such famous errors surely resulted not from incompetence, but from Cortot's nervous, high-pitched intensity; a sheer involvement that could easily cloud his composure or unsettle his equilibrium.
Yet for the greater part Chopin's elusive essence emerged unscathed from so much inaccuracy and caprice. Like the beam of a lighthouse piercing the surrounding gloom Cortot's vividness outshone his faults and made critical complaint or the use of a Beckmesser's slate seem churlish and arbitrary. His falls from grace could indeed seem like spots on the sun, and in the words of Yvonne Lefebure (always among his most distinguished pupils) ''his wrong notes were those of a God''.
Having grown up with Cortot's early 78rpm sets of Chopin, I have deeply resented their absence from the catalogue for so many years. How one missed his nimbleness, his arch-Gallic vivacity and, above all, his entirely 'vocal' conception of a score. The limitations of other more 'correct', less volatile Chopin struck one at every turn. Happily, today's situation is very different. Once there was virtually nothing (what there was usually only available in Japan), now there is a positive deluge of reissues and, indeed, of duplications from Pearl, Biddulph, Music and Arts and, far from least, from EMI. Here on six glorious CDs is Cortot's Chopin at last in all its infinite richness and variety. The transfers are outstanding, with no attempt made to mask the glitter of his brilliance in the interests of silent surfaces or to remove other acoustical hiccups. Although not everything is included, Guthrie Luke's selection is wonderfully enterprising and judicious, with several alternative performances of the same work offered for perusal. My only quibble is the preference shown for the 1942 set of the Preludes when the earlier 1933 recording seems to me infinitely superior (available on EMI (CD) CDH7 61050-2, 1/89). I also regret the omission of the Fantaisie-impromptu, which Luke claims in his excellent notes was too disappointing for inclusion (it appears, however, on CDH7 61050-2).
In the first volume which concentrates on recordings dating from 1920 to 1931 even the dim and distant sound cannot mar the sheer charisma of much of the playing. In both versions of the Berceuse Cortot's heart-stopping rubato tugs against the music's natural pulse, and although the later is less stylistically lavish, both accounts show his capacity, particularly in his early and relatively carefree days, to spin off the most delicate fioriture with a nonchalant iridescent fantasy and facility. His relish, too, of that surprise chiming C natural just before the conclusion is pure Cortot, a true ''shock'' rather than a ''digital impression'', to quote his own differentiation where true artistry is concerned. Both performances are teasing sophistications of innocence, of childhood dreams seen through adult eyes. Elsewhere you will hear a Black Keys Etude (Op. 10 No. 5) wickedly tinted and inflected despite the most vertiginous brilliance and rapidity of reflex, and an Aeolian Harp (Op. 25 No. 1) where the melody glides across a harmonic haze as if on air cushions. All praise, too, for the inclusion of Cortot's fire-eating performance of the Twelfth Prelude, a less muted experience than his 1942 account.
The 1931 B minor Sonata is also far superior to a later version from 1933 (although the space between Cortot's various recordings was often narrow, his performances, while retaining their essential outward characteristics, varied in detail, biased this way or that according to the heat and inspiration of the moment) with a ravishing second subject in the opening Allegro maestoso and a central quaver flow in the Largo in which melody and counter-melody swell and recede like some magical sea. Cortot's 1933 B flat minor Sonata is also a far cry from one made in 1953, where his powers failed him almost totally and is, indeed, of a dizzying aplomb and brio. The opening movement proceeds at a headlong tempo, and who but Cortot could drive the triplet ascents and descents after the brief second subject's expansion with such a total disregard for anything other than their rhythmic force and inflammatory life? In his hands the Scherzo, which like all Chopin's Scherzos is in rapid triple time, becomes a compelling answer to Liszt's Mephisto Waltz (written so many years later). And here only Rachmaninov in his recording (Music Memoria, 11/91) equals Cortot in sheer rhythmic elan. The Funeral March's central trio becomes a true benediction, with a good deal less de-synchronization than one might have expected, and in his light-fingered whirl through the phantom finale Cortot allows himself just one furious gust before the final explosion.
The A flat was the only Polonaise Cortot recorded (though Music and Arts have a Polonaise-Fantaisie previously unissued and dating from 1947 and there is a 1923 recording of Op. 22, mutilated rather than cut and minus its preceding Andante spianato—(CD) MACD615) which is regrettable considering the fire he brings to Poland's most ebullient and regal dance. There are growling bass reinforcements and the principal melody shouts its triumph at one point an octave higher than written, though it has to be said that Cortot had a way of making such licence irresistible. His is a wilder, less contained or civilized view of Chopin's nationalism than Artur Rubinstein's in his rightly celebrated and most aristocratic 1966 RCA account (12/86). Cortot could be a master of Gallic understatement but when the mood took him he hardly did things by halves.
There is elaboration too in the Second Ballade, the volcanic interjections ablaze with added notes, and in the opening of the last and glorious Fourth Ballade there is a convulsive leap across the rhythm, one of Cortot's most curious and instantly recognizable mannerisms and a provocative view of one of the composer's supremely rich and tranquil gestures. However the gem is surely the Third Ballade with the opening pages played as if improvised on the spot, the figuration commencing at 3'34'' foaming and cascading with a freedom and liberality unknown to most players. The F minor Fantaisie also suggests that Cortot never compromised where his intensity of vision was concerned, aiming for speeds which other more stable pianists would never dare consider, and achieving in the process a truly demonic force rather than the heroics of received custom or taste.
Cortot's Barcarolle (his only recording of one of Chopin's greatest masterpieces) was once described by a French critic as ''un rituel erotic-passionel'' and it is indeed as insinuating as it is blisteringly intense, even though the hectic rush through the final pages shows him at his least eloquent. In the Etudes (the 1934 is preferable to the 1942 set; both are included) he reaches out far beyond mere pedagogical concerns. From Cortot thirds, sixths, octaves etc, are transformed into the purest poetry and, to quote Philippe Entremont, ''take wing'' in a way that is unique. Listen to his way with Chopin's instruction la melodia tenuta e legata in the E minor, Op. 25 No. 5, or the urgency (rather than mere proficiency) with which the notorious thirds of Op. 25 No. 6 are propelled, and you may well feel that you are hearing this music for the first time. The final and awe inspiring Op. 25 No. 12, too, is not the cantus firmus of a traditional view but an elemental declamation and upheaval.
In the Waltzes there is a near operatic freedom in the melody of Op. 42 with its cunning mix of duple and triple rhythm, a charming decorative aside at bar 20 in the E flat, Op. 18 (only in the 1943 version) and a puckish mercurial touch throughout that banishes all possible monotony from so many pieces in three time. There is a comically confused start to the A flat, Op. 64 No. 3 and an unholy muddle at the end of the final Waltz in E minor. Yet by and large these are preferable, more airborne readings than in the earlier 1934 set.
The Second Concerto, heard in Cortot's own arrangement or refurbishment with some marginal re-texturing here and there, shows him at his most excitingly rhetorical. Rearing and plunging through bravura passagework and revelling in every opportunity for the richest variety of voicing and texture, he makes the many years since the work's first performance roll away. Barbirolli's accompaniment may be rumbustious rather than subtle, yet the music sounds as if newly minted, alive in all its first audacious ardour and novelty.
The 1942 Preludes, as I have suggested, are more intriguing than convincing, less eloquent, fiery, or articulate than those of 1933. There is a disarming lightness to the popular No. 7 (its Mazurka affiliation charmingly highlighted), but No. 10 in C sharp minor is much less assured than a few years earlier; No. 15 commences sadly off pitch and No. 16 is less 'driven' or trenchant than in the earlier and greatly celebrated account. The bald forte chord that ends No. 21 is, again, uncharacteristic and No. 24, with its prophecy of boiling Rachmaninovian passions, ends in a state of confusion. Six Nocturnes are included and while hardly examples of the stylistic purity to which we have become accustomed in the post-Cortot era, are brilliantly alive with his own heady alternative. The lone C sharp minor Prelude, Op. 45 concludes the final disc leaving us with an example of Cortot's art at its most fervent and deeply introspective.
You will not easily find a more absorbing box-set of piano discs, or one that will be so frequently played while others languish in dusty oblivion, often examples of the dull respectability Cortot so demonstrably shunned. A photograph of the artist is included, cigarette as always in hand, and every inch the debonair Frenchman. There are also tributes from Edwin Fisher, Alfred Brendel, Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia and Byron Janis, to name but a few. Cortot, who suffered painfully from a sense of his own imperfections, would have been gratified to know that future as well as contemporary admirers joined him in realizing that there are, perhaps, higher things in art than mere discretion. To logic, clarity, taste and finesse (always at the heart of all truly great French artistry) he added a wild re-creative passion and energy. With him Chopin's music leaves its earthly moorings far behind; as one writer put it ''when Cortot is no more Chopin will die a second time''.
The same could be said of Cortot's Schumann, music-making of a no less legendary calibre and status. Like Benno Moiseiwitsch, Cortot confessed to a special affection for Schumann, whose music is at the very heart of romanticism. Biddulph's three volumes include virtually all his Schumann, omitting the ''Vogel als Prophet'' from Waldszenen (recorded in 1948) and offering, unusually, the 1927 rather than 1934 Concerto. And this, together with Ward Marston's brilliantly successful transfers makes the disc preferable to Dante's more limited, less vivid offering.
Once again, and perhaps to an even greater extent than in his Chopin, you realize that for Cortot the most audaciously romantic piano was invariably an apotheosis of song and dance. Few if any pianists have ever matched the haunting sweetness and intensity of his cantabile or equalled the lightness and vivacity of his rhythm. Such qualities illuminate every page of Papillons, from the opening teasingly inconclusive question to the final fading of this miniature Carnaval with its distantly chiming bells and syncopated waltz memories, a true ''melting into air, into thin air''. The Davidsbundlertanze, too, for all its inaccuracy, is surely among the glories of Cortot's recorded legacy, his scintillating play of light and shade creating its own affirmation of poetic forces ready to rout the hated Philistines from the battlefield. The combination of his alternately taut and flexible maintenance of phrase and line with his tireless illumination of detail (of above all, passing rhythmic and harmonic piquancy) was one of Cortot's most priceless gifts and in No. 14—to name but one instance—he provides a polyphonic magic, a subtle differentiation and entwining of voices that Brendel sees as a virtually lost art. If I had to pick just one short example of Cortot's artistry for my desert island this would be high on my list. His Carnaval (my own first choice when ''Building a Library'' for BBC Radio 3), too, is alive with gaiety and passion. The groundswell in ''Chopin'' is more urgent than usual, more truly agitato, the final march takes off at a cracking pace, and earlier Cortot, in common with Rachmaninov, includes ''Sphinxes'', a witty addition and an amusingly dour presence among the clowns and dreamers of Schumann's masked ball.
He also includes all the posthumous items in his Etudes symphoniques, scattering them freely through the text but playing them with such improvisatory magic that all sense of interruption or slackened structure is virtually erased. In the opening theme his tempo is beautifully natural (a far cry from Pogorelich's stylized drawl, to take an extreme opposite) and if his sautille bowing in No. 3 is less consummately light or mercurial than Geza Anda in his early Columbia recording (10/53—nla), his final pages are of a unique verve and elan. Then there is his account of the Concerto, no less idiosyncratic, and alive with those seemingly improvisatory gestures that enchant or infuriate according to taste. The finale is launched in comically grand, curtain-raiser style and there are several instances of thundering bass reinforcements, or sudden skyward lifts of a treble line that are somehow central to Cortot's liveliness and caprice, to his poetic vitality.
In the D minor Trio, music of a driving, almost Franckian pace, Cortot and his colleagues plunge through the second movement like men possessed. And if the recording remains sadly dim and dated nothing can lessen the impact of what is re-created as an elemental game of tag, each player in hot pursuit of the other. Cortot's partnership with Charles Panzera in the Dichterliebe also provides a discreet yet deeply personal 'vocal' counterpoint, and in the concluding ''Die alten, bosen Lieder'', where Schumann so characteristically illuminates all that has gone before, his crystalline texture and potently expressive phrasing are exemplary. In the remaining solo items you will hear a magical sense of undulation in ''Des Abends'' and in the central langsamer of ''Intermezzo I'' (Kreisleriana) Cortot shows how it is possible to clarify writing which can so easily seem wilfully obscure. In Kinderszenen his ''Kind im Einschlummer'' suggests the journey from innocence to experience, of childhood glimpsed though pained and adult eyes, and has the poet in the concluding ''Der Dichter spricht'' ever spoken with greater eloquence or gravity?
It comes almost as a relief to find Cortot's Debussy and Ravel less distinguished. His Debussy Preludes are more combative and cavalier than expected. The very Spanish serenader of ''La serenade interrompue'' takes his intended by storm rather than stealth and ''Voiles'' is hardly sans rigueur et caressant. Cortot found greater depth in later recordings of the Children's Corner suite although there are rich compensations in the finespun elegance of his ''Doctor Gradus'' and his stylish response to Debussy's mockery of Wagner's chromatic solemnity in the ''Golliwog's cakewalk''. His Ravel, while less unfortunate than his recording of the Left-hand Concerto, hardly counts among his most distinguished offerings. So perhaps pride of place should go to his recording of the Violin Sonata with Jacques Thibaud, that rarefied distillation of Debussy's genius, and a work where every phantom from his past seems to rise before him.
Finally, both Biddulph and Music and Arts give us Weber's A flat Sonata (played with inimitable brio and wit), and Mendelssohn and Liszt respectively. Of the two, Biddulph again offer the finest transfers, though I would not want to be without Cortot's version of the Liszt Sonata on Music and Arts where, despite so many battle-scarred moments, his performance blazes with an endearingly old-fashioned poetry, thunder and lightning. But clearly all these discs are indispensable; a living reflection of a richer more vital culture than our own. Dante's Schumann discs come with some valuable biographical pointers, but if forced to choose from this Aladdin's cave of musical quality I would have to pick EMI's Chopin and Biddulph's Schumann.'

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