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. 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.

Aristocratic Poise

Benno Moiseiwitsch was an aristocratic pianist : he had flair. Despite his poker-faced demeanour at the keyboard, he brought warmth, elegance, and beauty of colour to his interpretations. Born in 1890 in Odessa, Benno always had a dry disposition and modest character, as exemplified by a conversation one morning over breakfast when his parents asked their nine-year-old son who had won the prestigious Rubinstein Prize at the Imperial School of Music the previous day. “I did,” the young lad replied, his mouth full of egg.

Moiseiwitsch emigrated to England and toured all over the world, eventually becoming friends with his exiled compatriot Sergei Rachmaninoff. The two hit it off, bonding over a shared understanding of one of Rachmaninoff’s compositions, as Moiseiwitsch recounts in this interview later in his life:

Moiseiwitsch’s mastery of Rachminoff’s idiom is evident from the wonderful recording he made of this work in 1940, with a beautiful tonal range that included a brooding bass and rich singing treble, an uncanny ability to balance voicing between hands, and an unusual melting effect he creates that adds even more melancholy to his performance:

Fortunately, Moiseiwitsch made many recordings, and they are being issued systematically on the Naxos label for incredibly reasonable prices and in the best possible sound. One of the most famous – and justly so – is his performance of Rachmaninoff’s transcription for piano of the ‘Scherzo’ from Mendelssohn’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ It is a treacherous work that requires phenomenal fingerwork to play successfully. In the early days of recording, choosing what work to record was subject to many conditions, not least of which was what other performances had been issued on other labels. Because Rachmaninoff had already recorded the work on RCA, Moiseiwitsch’s label HMV (the UK sister-label to RCA) was reluctant to record a performance that would compete with the composer’s own. One day, at the end of a recording session, the producer informed Moiseiwitsch that he’d completed his session with some time left on the clock and suggested recording a short work to keep on reserve. The pianist, being quite tired, didn’t particularly want to play anything else – and he’d already started putting the collar back on his shirt (as one did in the day) – so he suggested the Rachmaninoff Mendelssohn arrangement, thinking the producer would refuse. The producer called his bluff and accepted on condition that Benno make only one take – thinking of course that the pianist couldn’t do it and so they wouldn’t have to issue the recording. (In those days, works were recorded in one 5-minute segment, unedited. Rachmaninoff made at least six takes of the work in his sessions to produce a version that satisfied him.) The pianist no doubt smirked at the challenge, sat down, and made the most flawless recording of his career: a resonant tone even in soft passages, remarkably even fingerwork, and incredible consistency of articulation and speed. It is considered better than the composer’s own performance and Benno himself stated that he thought it was his greatest recording.

Moiseiwitsch’s demeanour at the piano was one of immovable certainty. We live today in an age of exaggerated showmanship, where many less cultivated pianists believe that they must show their emotions rather than convey them through their playing. This illustration of Moiseiwitsch shows the extent to which his controlled appearance was well-known, showing the same facial expression for 16 different tempo markings in a piece of music.

A treasure of recorded pianism comes in the form of a 1954 BBC broadcast, fortunately preserved and finally released on DVD (though as an appendix to a disc devoted to another artist). The work is the treacherous Liszt arrangement of Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture, a work so challenging that the composer himself used to take a break midway through. The performance here is shot with one camera that zooms in slowly over the course of the 15 minutes, and one can watch in amazement as the 64-year-old Moiseiwitsch overcomes the considerable technical hurdles of the piece without a single grimace. While it may not be note-perfect by today’s standards, one will not find a performance today that has this level of tonal range, grandeur, and abandon (and every commercial recording you hear will be made up of multiple edits sliced together). Never an unnecessary movement (some of the more dramatic arm drops are for tone production) – pure economy of gesture, but a full emotional range! And at the end, a farewell message that demonstrates his suave character. A gentleman and aristocrat.

Frenetic Intensity

Vladimir Horowitz was an easy pianist for me to love when I was younger. His fingerwork was dazzling and he brought great excitement to his interpretations. As I came to appreciate other pianists’ playing and more subtle forms of phrasing, I became less interested in Horowitz, but his early recordings – those made before his psychological condition worsened and he became so self-conscious – did continue to thrill me.

Shortly after the pianist’s death, EMI released a 3-CD set of his early recordings which included some rare items, including a never-before-released 1930 recording of a Prokofiev Toccata – great stuff. I was particularly excited when one day in a London record shop I should stumble across the vinyl pressing of that unpublished 78 disc that had been used by sound engineer Keith Hardwick for that EMI CD – for a mere five pounds. I loaned it to Bryan Crimp of Appian Publications and Recordings, who would later use it for his own Horowitz reissue, and more recently it has been used by Canada’s own Yves St. Laurent for one of his Horowitz CDs on his label.

The performance is so exciting that it’s hard to know why it wasn’t released (a performance from 6 months later Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Minor features Horowitz in a rather panicky memory lapse and is the one that ought not to have been issued). His rhythm is wonderfully paced, lines are superbly crafted, and the excitement builds to a frenetic pace. Volodya at his best!

Rachmaninoff’s Choice

One of the pianists whom I wanted to hear most after reading Harold C Schonberg’s tome ‘The Great Pianists’ was Josef Hofmann. Schonberg clearly idolized him and wrote about him in such detail that I couldn’t quite imagine what he sounded like. Sure enough, once I did hear his playing, I realized that this was indeed something very different from the norm – there was no one like this at all on the concert stage at the time I was introduced to him (in the mid-80s), While Horowitz was known as a Romantic master, he too seemed almost ordinary…while Horowitz created amazing sounds and lightning bolts, Hofmann seemed to be an alchemist who produced liquid gold.

The legendary concert that Schonberg wrote about – Hofmann’s Golden Jubilee performance of November 28, 1937 at the Metropolitan in New York – was one that I excitedly got my hands on, and I could not believe some of the playing. Perhaps one of the greatest parts of the concert is his performance of Rachmaninoff’s famous G Minor Prelude Op.23 No.5. The middle section finds Hofmann voicing a third voice in such a way that it seems to float and jump out of nowhere. The similarity between the writing of this work and that of the famous Third Piano Concerto brings to mind how incredible Hofmann’s performance of that work might have been – Rachmaninoff wrote the work with him in mind, and Hofmann never played it. The loss is ours. But the 3-minute dream of this performance of the G Minor Prelude can fill the imagination with how splendid that interpretation might have been…