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Piano Concertos (volume 1)
Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor (LPO, conducted by Landon Ronald)
Piano Concerto no 2 in F minor (an orchestra conducted by John Barbirolli)
NAXOS Historical Recordings 8.110612 [70:58]

Piano Concertos (volume 2)
Cesar Franck
Symphonic Variations (LPO, conducted by Landon Ronald)
Piano Concerto no 4 in C (an orchestra conducted by Charles Munch)
Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Paris Conservatoire Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch)
NAXOS Historical Recordings 8.110613 [59:38]

Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) - conductor, teacher and prolific writer as well as pianist - was undoubtedly one of the giants of 20th century music.

These discs (dating from the 1930s) certainly capture the essence of his pianism - limpid phrasing, generally sure grasp of form and wonderfully articulated passage-work. All the more surprising to learn, therefore, that he was not greatly concerned about his liberal supply of wrong notes (especially in the left hand) in tutti passages.

Unfortunately, though there is much to savour in these performances, they are essentially for the student of the evolution of piano-playing rather than the general listener; for despite the undoubted remastering skills of Mark Obert-Thorn the sound-quality of the orchestral accompaniments is simply unacceptable to the modern ear. Textures are consistently constricted and often graceless. I have yet to hear a contemporary orchestra make full sense of Ravel's lugubrious introduction to his Concerto for the Left Hand: here it is reduced to a grotesque muddle; while the concluding brass chords are intensely grating. In the Schumann concerto the nasal tone of principal oboe is no less disagreeable.

The piano itself is better served: the middle register sounds quite natural, though the bass is often muddy and the treble disconcertingly shrill.

Perhaps on account of its restrained orchestration, the most successful of these recordings is that of the Chopin. Cortot brings to the first-movement cadenza of the Schumann a fine improvisatory feel, though the ponderous rallentando heralding the arrival of the finale is unexpected. Most enjoyable is Saint-Saens unjustly neglected Fourth Concerto whose wit and charm shine which even this unfavourable sound-world cannot obliterate.

Overall, one strictly for the archives.

Adrian Smith



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