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Alfred Cortot - The Piano Works
Jacques Thibaud (violin), Pablo Casals (cello)
rec. 1926-1949
DOCUMENTS 600175 [10 CDs: 502:14]

Alfred Cortot (1877–1962) must be counted among the truly great musicians during the first half of the twentieth century. Born in Switzerland to a French father and a Swiss mother he studied at the Paris Conservatory with Émile Decombes, who was a pupil of Chopin, which explains why he became a leading interpreter of Chopin’s music. He was also a conductor, worked at Bayreuth around the turn of the last century and conducted the first performance of Götterdämmerung in Paris in 1902. As early as 1905 he formed the legendary piano trio with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals. He was a prolific recording artist, cut piano-rolls in the early 1920s and in 1925 made the world’s first electric recording of classical music – Chopin but also some Schubert. He continued to make recordings until as late as 1957. Neither of these latter two are included in this box but most of his best – and legendary – recordings are here, spanning the period 1926 to 1949, right up to the end of the era of 78 rpm discs.

Sonically these recordings are relatively limited but they catch very well the essence of his music-making. You soon adjust to the lack of overtones and wide dynamics, and I had no problems listening through several discs at one sitting.

The first three CDs cover his Chopin – not all of it and considering the relatively short playing time on several of the discs it should have been possible to include even more. What we have is Chopin playing of the highest order. Cortot was a keyboard poet and on the first disc, with the Op. 10 and Op. 25 etudes, the well-known E major Op. 10 No. 3 is a splendid way of getting some notion of his characteristics. It is lyrical, his touch is beautiful, he is rather unsentimental, although he employs rubato very subtly. The music breathes so naturally and the playing is effortless. At forte the tone tends to harden but this can be handled by turning down the volume a fraction and reducing the treble. Recorded in 1933 and 1934 respectively the sound is more than acceptable. Throughout the disc Cortot plays with the refinement that was his hallmark.

The preludes Op. 28 on CD 2 were recorded in 1942-43 and the sound is marginally better. Again the playing is wonderfully refined and sensitive. Technically his later recordings tended to be less accurate but there is no reason to complain when the musicianship is so overwhelming. The three impromptus, recorded in 1933, are excellent fillers, as is the Berceuse Op. 57 in a recording from 1949 and here the improvement in sound is marked. There is a quite different fullness of tone and the dynamic range is impressively wide.

The B flat minor sonata, which is the main number on CD 3, is also from 1933 and in such powerful music the recording technique of the day wasn’t able to give the dynamic range of the music its full due. That said, the funeral march still stands out as a worthy reading. The F minor nocturne, recorded in 1947, is very fine and so is the sonically excellent C sharp minor prelude from 1949. We should keep in mind that the pianist was past seventy at the time.

On CD 4 Kreisleriana is both sensitive and virtuosic and Cortot differentiates well between the contrasting sections. Recorded in 1935 the sound is quite good. The Symphonic etudes, on the other hand, are sonically relatively dated, having been recorded in 1929.

CD 5 presents a fine poetic Davidsbündlertänze from 1937 and the piano trio, from the legendary series of recordings with Thibaud and Casals. This doesn’t belong to Schumann’s most inspired compositions, but the third movement is full of atmosphere and the finale has energy aplenty. The violin tone is rather thin but in general the sonic quality of these trio recordings is surprisingly high, considering their age.

CD 6 also finds Cortot in his element when he plays Debussy. The recordings of the first book of preludes were spread over many years, the oldest, La fille aux cheveux de lin, set down in 1931, while the most recent, La danse de Puck, had to wait until 1949. Children’s Corner was also recorded after the war. All of them are certainly authoritative and must be counted, together with Walter Gieseking’s, as definitive recordings.

More French music comes on CD 7 with a very realistic 1929 recording of Franck’s violin sonata. A lyrically refined first movement, a strong and intense second, a warmly beautiful third, and just listen to Thibaud’s glowing tone in the finale. Fauré’s first sonata also gets a vivid reading with a whirlwind scherzo and a rousing finale. It should be mentioned that ten years before this recording, Cortot had premiered Fauré’s second sonata.

In between the violin sonatas we are treated to an excellent recording of Ravel’s Sonatine, utterly well balanced and crystal clear – extraordinary sound for 1931.

Franz Liszt was also a composer that Cortot championed and the recording on CD 8 of his B minor sonata in 1929 was the first ever. Clarity is the keyword for his reading. His technical acuity is never in question, but far more than being a showpiece this is a version that focuses on the lyrical aspects. Incidentally the work is wrongly labelled as 'violin sonata' in English, although the German title is correct. The Rigoletto-Paraphrase was recorded as early as 1927 and all the other Liszt pieces, bar Der heilige Franziskus von Padua über das Wasser schreitend, are also quite early.

On the remaining two discs we again encounter the Cortot-Thibaud-Casals Trio in trend-setting recordings of masterpieces that should be in every collection of chamber music. Beethoven’s Erzherzog-Trio has never been bettered, not even by the Beaux Arts Trio and the sound is impressive. The filler on CD 9 is the delightful variations on Mozart’s Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen.

On CD 10 we get the other famous piano trio in B flat major, that by Schubert, and also here, recorded in 1926, the sound is fully acceptable. The filler here is also a famous recording: Haydn’s G major trio with the exciting finale Rondo all’ongarese.
Readers with an interest in piano and chamber music days gone-by should derive a lot of pleasure from this box which in some shops retails at about Ł1 per disc.

Göran Forsling

Full Contents Details
Alfred Cortot The Piano Works
CD 1 [54:43]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810 – 1849)
12 Études Op. 10:
1. No. 1 G major [1:58]
2. No. 2 A minor [1:23]
3. No. 3 E major [3:56]
4. No. 4 C sharp minor [2:03]
5. No. 5 G flat major [1:36]
6. No. 6 E flat minor [3:08]
7. No. 7 C major [1:30]
8. No. 8 F major [2:23]
9. No. 9 F minor [2:19]
10. No. 10 A flat major [1:55]
11. No. 11 E flat major [1:49]
12. No. 12 C minor [2:39]

12 Études Op. 25:
13. No. 1 A flat major [2:08]
14. No. 2 F minor [1:25]
15. No. 3 F major [1:45]
16. No. 4 A minor [1:40]
17. No. 5 E minor [2:45]
18. No. 6 G sharp minor [1:55]
19. No. 7 C sharp minor [4:48]
20. No. 8 D flat major [1:06]
21. No. 9 G flat major [1:02]
22. No. 10 B minor [3:07]
23. No. 11 A minor [3:32]
24. No. 12 C minor [2:48]

CD 2 [51:20]
Frédéric CHOPIN
24 Préludes Op. 28:
1. No. 1 C major Agitato [0:35]
2. No. 2 A minor Lento [2:01]
3. No. 3 G major Vivace [0:59]
4. No. 4 E minor Largo [1:35]
5. No. 5 D major Allegro molto [0:36]
6. No. 6 B minor Lento assai [1:35]
7. No. 7 A major Andantino [0:34]
8. No. 8 F sharp minor Molto agitato [1:42]
9. No. 9 E major Largo [1:13]
10. No. 10 C sharp minor Allegro molto [0:30]
11. No. 11 B major Vivace [0:34]
12. No. 12 G sharp minor Presto [1:10]
13. No. 13 F sharp major Lento [2:43]
14. No. 14 E flat minor Allegro [0:34]
15. No. 15 D flat major Sostenuto [4:42]
16. No. 16 B flat minor Presto con fuoco [1:08]
17. No. 17 A flat major Allegretto [2:47]
18. No. 18 F minor Allegro molto [0:50]
19. No. 19 E flat major Vivace [1:15]
20. No. 20 C minor Largo [1:26]
21. No. 21 B flat major Cantabile [1:36]
22. No. 22 G minor Molto agitato [0:45]
23. No. 23 F major Moderato [0:40]
24. No. 24 D minor Allegro appassionato [2:24]

25. Impromptu No. 1 A flat major Op. 29 [3:46]
26. Impromptu No. 2 F sharp major Op. 36 [4:55]
27. Impromptu No. 3 G flat major Op. 51 [4:29]
28. Berceuse D flat major Op. 57 [4:11]

CD 3 [47:11]
Frédéric CHOPIN
Piano Sonata No. 2 B flat minor Op. 35
1. I. Grave – Doppio movimento [5:54]
2. II. Scgerzo: Presto ma non troppo [4:28]
3. III. Marche funčbre: Lento [6:27]
4. IV. Finale: Presto [1:27]

5. Barcarolle F sharp major Op. 60 [7:52]
6. Prélude C sharp minor op. 45 [4:11]
7. Fantaisie-Impromptu C sharp minor Op. 66 [4:35]
8. Nocturne No. 15 F minor Op. 55 [4:27]
9. Ballade No. 1 G minor op. 23 [8:39]

CD 4 [50:08]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856)
Kreisleriana Op. 18:
1. I. Äusserst bewegt [1:59]
2. II. Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch [6:16]
3. III. Sehr aufgeregt – Erwas langsamer – Erstes Tempo [3:20]
4. IV. Sehr langsam – Bewegter – Erstes Tempo [3:40]
5. V. Sehr lebhaft [2:49]
6. VI. Sehr langsam [3:33]
7. VII. Sehr rasch [2:12]
8. VIII. Schnell und spielend [2:51]

9 – 26 Symphonische Etüden Op. 13 [23:24]

CD 5 [52:38]
1. Davidsbündlertänze Op. 6 [22:17]

Piano Trio D minor Op. 63:
2. I. Mit Energie und Leidenschaft [12:16]
3. II. Lebhaft, doch nicht zu rasch [4:21]
4. III. Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung [6:17]
5. IV. Mit Feuer [7:22]

CD 6 [46:42]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
Children’s Corner:
1. I. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum [2:11]
2. II. Jimbo’s Lullaby [2:33]
3. III. Serenade for the Doll [1:55]
4. IV. The Snow is Dancing [2:26]
5. V. The Little Shepherd [1:53]
6. VI. Golliwogg’s Cakewalk [2:42]

Préludes Book I:
7. I. Danseuses de Delphes. Lent et grave [2:49]
8. II. Voiles. Modéré [2:52]
9. III. Le vent dans la pleine. Animé [2:06]
10. IV. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir. Modéré [2:42]
11. V. Les collines d’Anacapri. Trčs modéré [2:50]
12. VI. Des pas sur la neige. Triste et lent [3:06]
13. VII. Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest. Animé et tumultueux [3:21]
14. VIII. La fille aux cheveux de lin. Trčs calme et doucement expressif [1:54]
15. IX. La serenade interrompue. Modérément animé [2:17]
16. X. La cathédrale engloutie. Profondément calme [4:31]
17. XI. La danse de Puck. Capricieux et léger [2:29]
18. XII. Minstrels. Modéré [1:58]

CD 7 [59:24]
César FRANCK (1822 – 1890)
Violin sonata A major:
1. I. Allegretto ben moderato [6:31]
2. II. Allegro [7:33]
3. III. Recitativo: Ben moderato. Fantasia: Molto lento [7:05]
4. IV. Allegretto poco mosso [5:48]

Maurice RAVEL (1875 – 1937)
5. I. Modéré [4:07]
6. II. Menuet [2:42]
7. III. Animé [3:35]

Gabriel FAURÉ (1845 – 1924)
Violin sonata No. 1 A major Op. 13
8. I. Allegro molto [6:52]
9. II. Andante [6:40]
10. III. Allegro vivo [3:45]
11. IV. Allegro quasi presto [4:39]

CD 8 [49:05]
Franz LISZT (1811 – 1886)
1. Piano sonata in B minor [25:23]
2. Rigoletto – Paraphrase [6:37]
3. Deux Légends: No. 2 Der Heilige Franziskus von Padua über das Wasser schreitend [7:32]
4. Hungarian Rhapsody No. 11 A minor [4:59]
5. Concert etude No. 2 La leggierezza [4:20]

CD 9 [46:23]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827)
Trio for piano, violin and cello, B flat major Op. 97 “Erzherzog”
1. I. Allegro moderato [9:39]
2. II. Scherzo: Allegro [6:42]
3. III. Andante cantabile, ma perň con moto [13:15]
4. IV. Allegro moderato. Presto [6:34]

5. Sieben Variationen über das Duett “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen“ WoO 46 [10:02]

CD 10 [44:40]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828)
Piano trio No. 1 B flat major
1. I. Allegro moderato [10:30]
2. II. Andante un poco mosso [8:59]
3. III. Scherzo: Allegro [3:47]
4. IV. Rondo: Allegro vivace – Presto [8:13]

Joseph HAYDN (1732 – 1809)
Piano trio G major Op. 73 No. 2
5. I. Andante [3:35]
6. II. Poco adagio cantabile [6:17]
7. III. Rondo all’ongarese: Presto [3:13]

Jacques Thibaud (violin) (CD 5 tr.2-5; CD 7 tr. 1-4, 8-11; CD 9; CD 10)
Pablo Casals (cello) (CD 5 tr. 2-5; CD 9; CD 10)


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