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Alfred Cortot - Anniversary Edition - EMI 40CDs

Label : EMI
Format : Flac (image + cue)
Cover : Yes

When Alfred Cortot died in 1962 at age 84, his unique Romantic aesthetic seemed alien and anachronistic to that era’s literalist zeitgeist, although an extensive series of French Pathé LP reissues managed to keep the pianist’s artistry alive. I encountered Cortot’s Chopin and Schumann for the first time on LPs in my college library, and still recall the sheer ecstasy and sense of risk that seemed to leap out of the scratchy vinyl grooves. Cortot’s rubato was idiosyncratic and impossible to copy, yet logical and controlled, abetted by bold melodic projection. His phrasing was full of heart-stopping tenutos, attention-grabbing accents, and dynamic nuances that propelled the music forward and up. At his best, Cortot’s tempos always struck me as natural and inevitable – never too fast or too slow.

Even in his prime Cortot’s wrong notes were legion, yet he often sailed through difficult passages with no effort at all—try Chopin’s A minor and A-flat major Op. 10 Etudes, the rolling arpeggio waves in Liszt’s Second St. Francis Legend, or the incandescent climax of Ravel’s Jeux d’eaux. Then again, Cortot’s liberal attitude toward textual fidelity bordered on the cavalier. Like many pianists of his era, Cortot loved to search out inner voices (real or implied), spice up bass lines with added octaves or filled out chords, and break the hands by playing the left before the right. However anachronistic these devices might have been, Cortot channeled them toward specific coloristic and expressive ends, although they became increasingly more pronounced, defiant, and craggy as the pianist aged and his technique waned. Compare his earlier assured and stylish Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 (three versions: 1925, 1926, and 1930) to the weaker 1952 Japan and 1953 London remakes, and you’ll hear for yourself.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the pianist’s death, EMI has brought out the largest and most comprehensive Cortot collection ever. The set offers nearly every commercial studio recording released under Cortot’s name on 78 shellac, vinyl LP, 45 rpm single, or compact disc, including unpublished takes already released on CD. To be sure, it is not quite “The Complete Cortot”. For example, the collection omits Cortot’s 1903 sessions accompanying soprano Felia Litvinne, plus a 1925 recording containing the second half only of Chopin’s First Ballade coupled on shellac with the same composer’s Second Impromptu. There is no broadcast material, either. However, we do get Cortot’s unpublished 1957 Chopin Preludes and Ballades, along with a few samples from the pianist’s long-rumored, unfinished Beethoven cycle recorded at the Ecole Normale in 1958/59.

A few vagaries in the booklet’s otherwise accurate discographical data ought to be addressed. Two Schumann selections—the 1953 Symphonic Etudes and 1954 Kreisleriana—are listed as “unissued”. In fact, the former came out on LP, and the latter accidentally appeared in Philips’ Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century series, only to be replaced by its superior 1935 counterpart. After hearing the Chopin Mazurkas (Op. 6 No. 2 and Op. 63 No. 3) from “England, 1950”, my suspicious ears led me to dig deeper. The performances actually stem from a complete Mazurka cycle attributed to Cortot, released on William Barrington-Coupe’s infamous Concert Artist label, first on cassette and then on CD. Long before the Joyce Hatto scandal exposed many of the label’s fraudulent productions, several specialists questioned the Cortot Mazurkas’ authenticity. I also have doubts about the provenance of these rather flaccid, shapeless readings, where the rhythmic license hardly conveys the force and sense of purpose typical of Cortot. In any event, the Anniversary Edition is superbly organized.

The first 29 CDs present solo and concerto recordings in more-or-less chronological order. Discs 1 through 3 feature Cortot’s complete American and British acoustic sides, followed by the 1925 electrical American sessions. Discs 4 through 9 cover the rest of the ’20s and early ’30s when Cortot set down his first versions of Schumann’s Carnaval, Symphonic Etudes, and A minor concerto, Franck’s Symphonic Variations, Chopin’s Preludes, Ballades, Sonatas Nos. 2 and 3, Debussy’s Preludes Book 1 and Children’s Corner Suite, plus his only recordings of Ravel’s Sonatine and Liszt’s B minor sonata (the latter’s first commercial recording).

The 1933-39 Abbey Road sessions dominating discs 10 through 17 arguably constitute Cortot’s strongest recordings. Little can be added to years of praise heaped upon the Chopin Preludes, Etudes, Fantasy, and Barcarolle (his overwrought Chopin Waltzes succeed less, despite rapturous individual selections like the C-sharp minor and Op. 60 A-flat), plus Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana. Cortot is off form in Ravel’s Left Hand Concerto, but his 1939 Weber Sonata No. 2 needs no apology. The French 1942/43 Chopin Etudes, Preludes, and Waltzes take up discs 18 and 19. By and large they are less technically secure than their Abbey Road counterparts, and relatively dry in ambience.

Discs 20 through 29 cover Cortot’s uneven postwar output. Experienced Cortot acolytes will find it easier than general audiences to listen beyond the technical flaws to appreciate what the aged pianist still could muster. And there are a few jewels among the late recordings, like the 1949 Chopin Berceuse and Op. 45 Prelude, Schumann’s Vogel als prophet, and Cortot’s own transcription of Schubert’s Litany. While Cortot’s fingers are often taxed in his 1952 Japanese sessions, he still manages a surprisingly assured Liszt Second Rhapsody.

Discs 30 through 37 showcase Cortot’s prowess as a chamber player, conductor, and song accompanist. His classic collaborations with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals are justly familiar and celebrated. Modern ears probably will wince at the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, with their humongous cadential ritards and frilly portamentos. Still, Cortot’s mad dash through the Fifth Concerto’s elaborate cadenza counts among the most exciting piano recordings ever made, complete with those cheeky added octaves in the 32nd-note runs! The Debussy song recordings with Maggie Teyte and the Schumann Dichterliebe with Charles Panzera reveal Cortot to be a sensitive, highly attuned collaborative pianist who still maintains a high profile.

No doubt collectors will be most curious about the newly published Beethoven cycle excerpts. In addition to the music, Cortot apparently taped commentaries for each sonata, with piano illustrations. Here we have “lecture-demo” versions of the Moonlight, Pathétique, and Appassionata sonatas, Op. 79, Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”), and Op. 90, plus several “music only” examples: Op. 57’s first movement, Op. 90’s second movement, and all three Op. 81a movements. It’s obvious that the music is in Cortot’s blood, if not consistently in his fingers. I like the walking pace and eloquent simplicity he brings to the “Les Adieux” slow movement, in contrast to many of today’s ponderous readings. There are beautifully shaped snippets from the Pathétique’s first-movement introduction and the Moonlight’s famous Adagio sostenuto, while the Appassionata excerpts’ organic flow and inner drama make me regret that Cortot did not record this warhorse in his prime. Furthermore, both Cortot’s voice and piano are excellently engineered.

The back of the box reads “New Remasterings, 2012”, but I’m not so sure. For example, the 1942/43 Paris Chopin transfers seem to replicate those effected for a 1991 6-disc Cortot Chopin compilation. I perceive no sonic differences between items released in APR’s “Alfred Cortot—The Late Recordings” series and their Anniversary Edition equivalents. By contrast, the 1934 Chopin Preludes sound less harsh on top, but with less bass response than a 1988 EMI Great Recordings of the Century CD. Conversely, I notice more amplitude and low end detail in the 1933 A-flat Polonaise and Tarantella than previous transfers reveal. The acoustic and earliest electrical sessions sound either just as good or slightly better than earlier restoration attempts, while the sonically grungy Liszt Sonata emerges clearer than ever.

However, the independents score in a few cases. Naxos’ LP-sourced mastering of the 1953 Chopin Sonata No. 2 boasts an openness and tonal bloom that the tape-based EMI version does not quite match, while I prefer the fuller, brighter sound of the out-of-print Koch Brandenburg Concertos to their suaver, more compressed EMI counterparts. When all is said and done, the Anniversary Edition’s virtues outweigh its shortcomings, and the same can be said of Cortot’s stimulating musicianship, for he rarely made a dull recording. Given this set’s magnitude, ambition, and relatively modest cost per disc, Cortot fans have never had it so good.

Complete tracklist : Alfred Cortot – Anniversary Edition