Naxos Historical 8.111261, 79:02 [Not Available in the US] ****:
The first RCA Victor artist to have electrical recordings issued in his name, Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) enjoyed a repute in Europe and in America as “among the most poetic of pianists.” Between 1925 and 1926, Cortot traveled to Camden, New Jersey in order to cut a series of shellacs that would supersede his previous inscriptions for the acoustic horn. As per expectation, Cortot brings a variegated palette to all he plays, imbuing even familiar works, like the Brahms Lullaby and Harmonious Blacksmith Variations, with a lyric, noble sincerity and directness of feeling.
The consistent inner pulse and plasticity of phrase we hear in the two renditions of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance (in two versions, within four seconds of each other in time) make for exciting listening, even if the acoustic has some dead spots. We do hear a missed note in the lovely A-flat Chopin etude. But the contrapuntal flow in the F-sharp Impromptu and the knotty heroics of the Ballade in G Minor compel our admiration, as does the simply whipping 1925 rendition of Liszt’s A Minor Rhapsody; the 1926 inscription is broader in several respects, and we may wonder if Kapell used this version as a basis for his strong rendition a generation later. The curio for collectors is the 1925 excerpt from Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, previously unissued, wherein Cortot’s attacks and fury set him on par with Hofmann’s swooping version at the 1938 MET concert. The 1926 full version of the Ballade is powerful enough, but it simply does not unleash the Dionysiac maenads as he had a year prior.
An immediate contrast in musical styles comes in the forms of Albeniz’s Sous le palmier and Chopin’s pearly Berceuse (1925), the latter a sonically glittering rival to the equally stunning realization by Solomon. The C Sharp Minor Rhapsody enjoys all sorts of Cortot touches; not the least is his rhythmic freedom and stop-on-the-dime landings, even the Lassu section, with its muttering recitatives. The colors of the Friss section, the pearly staccati, the unleashing of the energies that parody La Campanella, added figurations and ornaments ad libitum, all contribute to an exuberant, titanic effect. The Rigoletto quintet provides a one theme kernel for Liszt, but Cortot manages to exploit every nuance it contains for bravura and grandiose rhetoric. The sheer thunder in the octaves makes me wish we had an extant rendition of his E-flat Liszt Concerto. Excellent restorations of these old shellacs by Mark Obert-Thorn, who writes me that the whole was a labor of love.
— Gary Lemco
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