Naxos 8.111035 68:36 ****:
The second in the Cortot Chopin Edition, this disc, ably edited by Mark Obert-Thorn, assembles the June 1934 inscriptions by Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) of the Chopin waltzes, along with his five alternative takes Cortot recorded between 1939 and 1949. While never a master of precision playing, Cortot achieved and maintained an astonishing flair and style in the music of Chopin, imparting to the Pole’s idiosyncratic rhythm a true acolyte’s sense of tempo rubato and robust articulation. Occasionally, Cortot genuinely distorts the text, as in piu mosso section of the C Sharp Minor Waltz, Op. 64, No. 2. Whenever we encounter Alfred Cortot, there must be an understanding that one poetic temperament is interpreting, even colorfully adjusting another. The old adage (attributed to Paderewski) applies: what is important is not so much the written text but the musical effect.
Despite some audible surface noise from the ancient shellacs, the piano sound is clean and resonant, the middle register especially lucid. The occasional finger slip, as in the agogic shift in the middle of Op. 34, No. 1, is forgivable, since the underlying pulse is strict and Cortot’s always preserves the lyric element. I find his A Minor Waltz not peremptory, but it seems emotionally detached. Cortot comes right back, however, for the F Major brilliante waltz, in which he displays some canny detache and brittle sonority. The flexibility of Cortot’s pulse can win some envy, too. For the cut-time waltz in A-flat, no one can outclass Josef Hofmann, but Cortot’s version has panache and sinew. Pearly and fluid transition to the opening motif and to the rubato-laden coda. The “my-nute” waltz possesses a series of gentle lilts, the little grace notes passing like quicksilver wraiths Schumann would have fancied. The aforementioned C Sharp Minor is brilliant but missing a third beat here and there; willful, a la Hofmann. I find the A-flat, Op. 64, No. 3 especially soulful, with lovely, etched “points,” as Rachmaninov used to say. The waltz begins to expand into a polonaise, even a sonata-movement; then it turns, relinquishing its explosive possibilities into sweet dalliance. We have the “Adieu” Waltz in A-flat Major in two versions, the earlier from May 1931 making its CD debut. The marcato in the middle section adds a nobility of character to the general tenor of ruminative nostalgia. The restless B Minor Waltz is a pearl, enjoying little tugs of rhythmic license evocative of sensual promises. Flamboyance and color mark the G-flat Major, although an absent third beat in the left hand would make Chopin’s index finger likely wag in disapproval. Cortot makes this waltz resemble a Beethoven ecossaise. Another pearl, the F Minor, played with a subtle hesitancy and sudden surge of imploded passion that command our respect. Heavier surface noise in the D-flat Waltz, but extremely fluid handing of its repeated notes and erotic trill. The slowing down of the pulse for the da capo is affecting. A murky opening to the E Minor Waltz, then upper register brilliantine prevails. The storms in the rolling arpeggios point to the B Minor Sonata. A hesitant beat just prior to the recap, but the coda is colossal.
Five waltzes in alternative takes form a kind of addendum to this wonderful set, the takes having been HMV shellacs here making their debut on CD. While several items take virtually the same playing time, the inner logic remains distinct, in the best tradition of Chopin (and Mozart). The 1949 Adieu waltz, played a bit faster, does not benefit from improved sound, but it has a tenderness of its own. The G-flat gains in breadth, the middle section even more wistful. The “minute” waltz in the 1949 sounds a bit heavy in the left hand, Cortot’s riding the tempo and accent shifts hard. We end with the 1933 inscription of the F Minor Fantasie, a rendition which wants us to realize the epic scale of the composer’s conception. The darkly martial elements yield to a more plastic impulse whose left hand part thunders. This tumultuous sequence has the earmarks of T.S. Eliot’s sensibility. To simply call the nationalistic figures virile is an understatement. Cortot finally breathes for the transition to the slow section, a meditative song Cortot treats as a plainchant whose harmonies adumbrate Debussy. The return is straight out of the B Minor Scherzo, the emotional throes convulsive. Whew! When Le Maitre was lit, it was a divine fire he cast on all he surveyed.