Naxos Historical 8.111245,62:27 ****:
The last of Naxos’ transfers of the Chopin that virtuoso Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) inscribed for 78 rpm shellacs features the legendary 1929 Ballades and the six Nocturnes that he recorded 1947-1951. In tastefully resurrected remasterings by Mark Obert-Thorn, Cortot’s potent magic in Chopin – especially when he had been practicing – shines forth. The poetic imagination reigns in Cortot’s approach to the set of Ballades; and whether the visual associations be those inspired by Adam Mickiewicz is a moot point. The G Minor has girth and supple tensile strength, feverish crescendos and poignant declamations. When the F Major Ballade moves from lyric recollection to fiery passion, the old shellacs barely hold the fires that rage forth. Seamless trills and rhetorical gestures for the A-flat Ballade, its repeated, cantering figure permitted, like Icarus, to glimpse the ether. Inner pulsation is the core of a Cortot performance, and the flexibility with which he weaves Chopin’s harmonies and variants around this steady core is a miracle to audition. The F Minor opens in the midst of an exalted dream, diminuendi and ritardandi rife, but the internal dialogue poignant and secure. Lovely, polyphonic passagework and three-hand effects. When the emotional canvas expands into variation and dramatic recitative, the effects are never less than dazzling.
Two inscriptions of the E-flat Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2 grace this disc, the first from 19 March 1929, the second from 4 November 1949. Dramatic, poetic, fluent, both recordings reveal the same basic approach; only their sound quality betrays any difference, though I find the rubato more pronounced in the later disc. Something autumnal infiltrates Cortot’s reading of the F Major, Op. 15, No. 1. The F-sharp Major is even more Brahmsian, for want of an adjective that contains a simile of resignation. Its middle section becomes quite obsessive before the ternary song returns. Beautiful voicing, exquisite touch applied to the Op. 27, No. 1, a tracery of fairy dust. Its funereal second section explodes into a Polish national anthem. Demure stateliness for the F Minor, Op. 55, No. 1, lovely and poignant; but here my heart goes to Shura Cherkassky. We audition the Op. 55, No. 2 because the inscription by Ignaz Friedman is uppermost in our imaginations; buoyancy and lilting, inner harmonic movement characterize the Cortot inscription (15 October 1947) as well. Whenever he plays, Cortot consistently reminds us of Schumann’s axiom that “only genius communicates with genius.”
— Gary Lemco