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.