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.