Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) remains one of the monumental figures in French music, a conductor and teacher who found a demanding career as a pianist. By common consensus, Cortot possessed the true poet’s soul as an interpreter; and until just before WW II he kept up enough of his technique to convey accurately his comprehensive visions. Cortot tended to re-record major sections of his repertory, especially in Chopin, several times. Producer Mark Obert-Thorn, in association with Naxos, initiates a 5-CD project to restore many of the previously unpublished versions of Cortot’s Chopin, only some of which appeared in a major set from EMI about ten years ago.
The 24 Preludes from 1926 (the EMI set issued the cycle from 1933) suffer little surface distraction, and the playing is as molded and texturally faithful as we have. The bass grumblings in the D-flat Prelude come through, as does the pearly play in the treble. Cortot takes “the ride to the abyss” of No. 16 in B-flat Minor with a dervish leggierissimo that might make Liszt jealous. Cortot attends to the appoggiaturas of the E Minor in the course of what he later calls “absolute solitude, emptiness.” Mendelssohn‚s particular favorite, No. 17 in A-flat Major, pulsates with searching, tragic energy and nuance. The F Minor is a lightning flash. The B-flat Major adumbrates Proust, a nostalgic remembrance of lost time. The tempos are quite fast, and the G Minor’s convulsions pass and leave you bruised. The D Minor could well be Chopin’s version of Francesca ad Paolo.
The Prelude in C Sharp Minor and the Berceuse in D-flat derive from 1949 sessions, when Cortot gave a series of recitals to commemorate Chopin’s centennial. While the sonic articulation is clear, there is discernible hiss in the original source of the Prelude, although its poetry bears comparison to Michelangeli’s later DGG inscription. While no pianist has surpassed the Berceuse recorded by Solomon, Cortot’s tender account has one dreaming of sweet things. The 1950 D-flat Prelude makes its CD debut away from Japan, an understated, broad interpretation whose middle section communicates a sense of menace. Cortot recorded the Four Impromptus only once: in 1933. The enjoy a liquid, glittering speed. The accents in the A-flat are rather idiosyncratic, certainly belying the “businesslike” epithet hurled at the reading by contemporary reviewers. The F Sharp Major is a musical knot which transmutes to a virile march before it return to musing. My personal favorite, the G-flat Major, receives a gossamer, limpid rendition, a chasing of rainbows, if I may steal from the Fantasie-Impromptu. The 1931 Tarantelle here makes its first appearance on CD anywhere. Cortot recorde the piece seven times, so its plummeting, relentless momentum had its wonders for Cortot, who evokes a brilliant Neapolitan dance in the full, invigorating sunshine.