APR 5572, 79:00 (Distrib. Harmonia mundi) ****:
More veteran colors from French piano virtuoso Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) who by 1948-49, suffered health problems and a decided deterioration of a once colossal, albeit erratic technique. Still, a lifetime of musical familiarity with the scores Cortot loved and championed does not go for naught. The softer side of his palette, as in Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir, proves seductive. Cortot opens with a limpid, even suave rendition of the little A-flat Aria from the Klavier Concerto No. 5 in F Minor, followed by a crystalline series of musicbox sonorities in the Purcell transcription from Harpsichord Suites 1 and 2. Vaporous mystery infiltrates Schumann’s Prophet Bird from Waldszenen, in spite of noisy surfaces on the original shellac. The rarest piece, Cortot’s 1947 Prelude Aria and Finale by Franck, lacks a second part to his opening Prelude, so his earlier 1932 version had to fill in – editor Bryan Crimp’s splicing the later version on a Steinway to that of a Bluether.
Cortot’s Chopin communicates eroticism and color sensitivity, though the rhythms can become wayward. The familiar Brahms Lullaby quickly becomes unfamiliar, with Cortot raising all sorts of interior lines above the central melody. Franck’s Prelude, Aria and Finale receives exquisite, plastic phrase and contour, but the piece still sounds a pale echo of the Prelude, Chorale and Fugue or a polished study for it. It is for the set of 12 Preludes by Debussy, along with the rarer encore pieces, that this disc demands purchase. Recorded 24 October 1949, the Preludes allow Cortot to exert utmost attention to Debussy’s agogics, as in Des pas sur la neige and La danse de Puck. To compare Cortot’s with Gieseking’s renditions is to savor two wonderful colorists, but whose approaches differ; with Cortot’s being more muscular, more direct, less over-pedaled. Like Gieseking, Cortot is a master of chiaroscuro, playing more Rembrandt to Gieseking’s Turner. Poetry, moreover, is the province of both pianists, Cortot’s combining a sense of probing improvisation even as he drives the music hard. Always fascinating and often compelling: the Cortot experience.
— Gary Lemco