Refined Impulsiveness

It is always interesting how some pianists’ reputations continue to grow after their death while others’ do not. The French pianist Alfred Cortot, for example, is still known by present-day piano lovers more than 50 years after his death – doubtless due not only to the great number of recordings he made but also the marvellous editions he produced of scores by Chopin and other great composers. And yet other pianists who were his colleagues and fine artists themselves have names that are all but forgotten.

Robert LortatOne of these is Robert Lortat. He was, like Cortot, a student of Louis Diémer at the Paris Conservatoire, and was also a friend of Fauré’s, performing many of that composer’s works yet strangely not recording a note of his music. He did record Chopin, however, putting down a cycle of the Etudes Opp.10 and 25 a couple of years before Cortot recorded his legendary sets. Lortat’s readings demonstrate a sense of adventurous and impulsiveness that he shared with Cortot yet with impressive technical precision and other admirable individual touches.

After some poor reissues of his recordings in the 1990s (the Etudes were badly pitched), there is a new release of some of his great Chopin playing on the Canadian DoReMi label that features some of his impressive recordings. His Chopin Preludes – presented below from an earlier reissue – are marvellous, featuring his full-bodied tonal palette, rhythmic drive, clear lines, interesting asynchronization of the hands, imaginative voicing, and some very impulsive touches despite a polished technique – exciting, musical playing by an artist well worth rediscovering!

Twilight of a God

Alfred Cortot’s name is sometimes uttered with disdain for his technical ability at the keyboard. It is indeed a fact that some of Cortot’s performances have wrong notes, something that our sanitized ears today are not used to in an age of digital editing and soulless perfection aimed more at satisfying competition juries than touching the heart of a listener. Certainly one need not aim for wrong notes in order to imbue a performance with passion, but if in the heat of the moment a performer misses a note, should the interpretation be discounted and the pianist’s skill be called into question? I think not.

As was clearly articulated in Harold C Schonberg’s classic tome ‘The Great Pianists’, Cortot was an active teacher, school administrator, active performer, and prolific recording artist – with all this on his plate, how much time did he have to practice? There is no doubt as to his well-grounded technical capacity when one merely glances at his book of piano exercises, ‘Principes Rationnels de la Technique Pianistique’, or his study editions for great keyboard works of Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt, which contain brilliant exercises designed to make performances of these works easier on a physical level (in addition to adding great insight on other levels of awareness).

Indeed, Cortot’s digital dexterity was so brilliant that Horowitz made a trip to Paris hoping to learn the French master’s fingering for the treacherous ‘Etude en Forme de Valse’ of Saint-Saens, his 1919 recording of which the young Russian pianist had heard. (Cortot did not tell him.) Here is that amazing performance:

Unfortunately, while one can appreciate the great Cortot’s digital wizardry, there is less of an opportunity to recognize the beauty of his tone in these early recordings, which were made using the acoustical recording process (whereby a paper horn as opposed to a microphone captured the performance). From 1925, recording techniques improved considerably (microphones came into use), and in 1931 Cortot recorded the same work again – still brilliant fingerwork, though perhaps not quite as seamless, but with that gorgeous, rich mahogany tone that is instantly recognizable:

Despite a few splashy moments, the performance is brilliant on many levels. One accepts Cortot’s wrong notes, as Schonberg wrote, ‘as one accepts scars or defects in a painting by an old master’: it is worth experiencing a work of art so beautifully expressed even if there are a few superficial flaws.

In the 1930s, Cortot recorded a great many of Chopin’s works, among them the Sonatas, Etudes, Waltzes, and Impromptus. His recording of the Third Impromptu – hardly the most commonly played of Chopin’s works – has always struck me as one of his greatest and as the most successful of the work, with soaring phrasing, remarkably fluid timing that fits with the structure of the unusual figurations, and a varied tonal palette. This is the kind of playing that reflects the depth of Cortot’s essence:

Cortot recorded so many of Chopin’s works that one has the mistaken impression that he recorded them all. But while he recorded the Sonatas, Etudes, Preludes, and Waltzes multiple times over the course of three decades, in addition to a few other works, he did not record the complete Scherzi, Polonaises, or Nocturnes (Artur Rubinstein did) – although according to one discographer he made attempts at all of the Scherzi and Polonaises in the 1940s and the complete Nocturnes in the 1950s. My source at EMI France – a great Cortot fan himself – assures me that no traces of any of these exist in the archives.

Which brings us to the point of this post: a rare recording made in his twilight years while on tour of Japan of a work he regrettably did not record earlier. In 1952, Cortot gave an extensive tour of Japan that involved 18 performances in 13 cities, with four different programs. These photos of the elegant program booklet (photos copyrighted – credits at bottom of post) show that among the works he played was Gaspard de la Nuit, a work of which no Cortot recording has been found. (He did in fact record it at the same 1939 EMI session that brought us the wonderful Weber Second Sonata, but it was never issued, the masters have been destroyed, and no copies have been located.) Apparently it was obvious to even the less musical listeners that the treacherous ‘Gaspard’ was beyond the aging pianist’s capacity, though it would still be fascinating to hear if a broadcast recording were ever to turn up.

During this visit, Cortot spent two days at RCA Victor’s studios in Tokyo making a series of records that were only issued in that country. There is no doubt that he was past his prime, and the recordings feature playing with less cohesiveness than his earlier performances, but there is some value to be found in some of them. This series of discs has been issued twice on CD in Japan, the more recent issue featuring fine transfers from the original source material, and has only just recently been made available in the West in a 40-disc Anniversary Edition on EMI. Of particular interest is Cortot’s recording of Chopin’s Second Scherzo, which despite a few splashy moments and occasionally less fluid phrasing than was his norm at his peak, features some very poetic playing and gives us an idea of how he might have played the work in his younger years. (The Third Scherzo, sadly, is tough even for Cortot admirers to sit through.)

Listening to this performance might make us wish that he had recorded it a couple of decades earlier – hearing the Third Impromptu above gives us insight into how he might have played this Scherzo in the 1930s. How wonderful nevertheless to be able to hear him in this work, even if his playing was a shadow of his former glory.

To leave with a perhaps more unified impression of his art, here is what might be the last solo recording that exists of the artist: a 1957 Munich radio broadcast of Chopin’s Berceuse Op.57, in which his rich, penetrating tone and evocative pedalling help him create a truly wonderful dream world.

Photos of Japanese concert programme courtesy of Sumie Ueno, retired seasonal lecturer from the Osaka College of Music. Program courtesy of Hiroshi Fukuda, Professor Emeritus from Hiroshima Prefectural Women’s University. Thanks to Chihiro Homma for making these available for this posting.

Distinguished Elegance

The French pianist Alfred Cortot soon became one of my favourite pianists – once I got used to the fact that he didn’t always hit all the notes. In our era of sterile perfection in recording – and with the same expectation for live performances – his recordings certainly took some getting used to. Cortot was a big-picture thinker and player, not only presenting a beautiful landscape but also including the expansive sky in the frame. Those who know and appreciate his recordings are quick to forgive his technical slips – ‘even his wrong notes are fantastic,’ they say.

One of the greatest CD releases devoted to Cortot came in the early 90s, when the Biddulph label released two CDs of his complete acoustic recordings for the Victor label – acoustic meaning that the recording was made before the invention of the microphone, when the artist performed into a paper horn that caused the needle carving the record to vibrate. While the resolution is significantly less than with standard recordings, one can certainly hear some great playing in some such recordings. These earlier recordings of Cortot captured him at a time when his technical accuracy had not yet begun to wane. Among the recordings was one of a Faure ‘Berceuse’ that had never been released since its session early in 1925, a work Cortot would never again record…a great shame, as he plays with a lovely rhythmic lilt, beautiful tone, and wonderfully balanced melodic and harmonic lines. Despite its age – the recording was made some 85 years ago – the disc reveals some great playing by a master artist.

Gleaming Poise

I learned a lot about the great pianists of the past by reading Harold C Schonberg’s classic book The Great Pianists. While he went into great detail about many pianists, he didn’t talk lots about others, yet I wanted to know about them all. One of the pianists from the early part of the 20th century that he mentioned was Mischa Levitzki, who he said died young.

One day I struck gold at one of my favourite second-hand stores in Montreal – someone had sold an amazing collection of top-notch historical piano LPs to the shop, and among the many many items that I purchased was a disc produced by the International Piano Archives of Mischa Levitzki: His Rarest Recordings (1923-1929). Two tracks stood out, both by Chopin: the Nocturne in C Minor Op.48 No.1 and the Third Ballade, Op.47. What struck me about the Ballade was the incredible sense of poise and balance – although Levitzki was trained in the Romantic tradition, his use of rubato was rather chaste, and the architectural structure of the music was beautifully served by his shifts in tempo and his alternating balance of voices in the left and right hands.

Levitzki was an A-List Steinway artist in the 1920s – meaning that he received a subsidy every time he played a concert on a Steinway – and, quite amazingly, Rachmaninoff and Horowitz were on the B-list. And yet a decade after he died, when the LP era came into being and labels were making retrospective LPs of artists who had recorded on 78s, RCA never once made an LP devoted to Levitzki, like they did for Lhevinne and Rachmaninoff. He was simply forgotten.

Fortunately for collectors, Gregor Benko of the International Piano Archives changed that in the 1970s with that glorious LP, and now you can buy Levitzki’s complete recordings – plus some broadcast performances – on a total of 3 CDs for less than $30, in glorious sound. What an age we live in…