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Hyperion Records

APR5572 - Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 2 – Franck, 'encores' & Debussy
APR5572

Recording details: Various dates
Abbey Road Studios, London, United Kingdom
Release date: March 2006
Total duration: 76 minutes 36 seconds

Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 2 – Franck, 'encores' & Debussy
Minuet  [2'15]  Henry Purcell (1659-1695), arr. Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)  recorded 19 April 1948
Prélude: Allegro moderato e maestoso  [8'17]  recorded 14 October 1947
Aria: Lento  [5'36]  recorded 14 October 1947
Final: Allegro molto ed agitato  [6'32]  recorded 14 October 1947
Danseuses de Delphes: Lent et grave  [2'38]  recorded 24 October 1949
Voiles: Modéré  [2'50]  recorded 24 October 1949
Le vent dans la plaine: Animé  [2'09]  recorded 24 October 1949
Les collines d'Anacapri: Très modéré  [2'41]  recorded 24 October 1949
Des pas sur la neige: Triste et lent  [2'51]  recorded 24 October 1949
Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest: Animé et tumultueux  [3'10]  recorded 24 October 1949
La sérénade interrompue: Modérément animé  [2'10]  recorded 24 October 1949
La cathédrale engloutie: Profondément calme  [4'43]  recorded 24 October 1949
La danse de Puck: Capricieux et léger  [2'25]  recorded 24 October 1949
Minstrels: Modéré  [1'53]  recorded 24 October 1949
Minuet  [2'10]  Henry Purcell (1659-1695), arr. Alfred Cortot (1877-1962)  recorded 19 April 1948

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
As detailed in the booklet to the first volume in this series (APR 5571), Alfred Cortot’s first post-war visit to EMI’s London studios in 1947 was but a modest success, with little more than half the record­ings made considered suitable for release.

Many complex factors lay at the root of this disappointment. On a personal level Cortot was a far from well seventy-year-old. Physically perhaps his greatest handicap at this time was a cataract in his left eye. Mentally he had endured untold tribulations as a result of some ill-advised wartime activities, added to which was the strain of his second wife’s continuing poor health. Even professionally Cortot the pianist was obliged to revise his long-established approach to the recording process. In the past Cortot, always a spon­taneous interpreter, might have secured a successful take only after a dozen or more waxes had been made. Now, prevailing post-war restrictions meant that raw materials were so scare that artists were obliged to restrict themselves to a very limited number of ‘takes’ per 78-rpm side.

Despite this new regime, Cortot’s ‘failures’ were rarely calamitous, as is evident from the recording of Franck’s Prélude, Aria et Final included here, the most extended work (spread across six sides) waxed during the 1947 sessions. Cortot’s approval of his recordings appears to have been primarily governed by interpretative considerations and he was certainly surprised when the Franck was considered to be unacceptable by his producer, David Bicknell. Now that we can hear this recording for the first time we can, perhaps, understand Cortot’s disappointment as we admire the manner in which the lyrical moments are so beautifully nuanced and how the score is so masterfully structured. Yet we can also comprehend Bicknell’s reluctance to release a recording, dating from an era when technical perfection had taken precedence over spontaneous interpretation, which has its obvious ‘troubled moments’. (We have to thank Malcolm Binns for placing the five surviving test pressings of this recording at APR’s disposal. Side two, the second half of the Prélude, has never been located and so Cortot’s earlier recording has been inserted in lieu. Every effort has been made to ease the transition from and to the Steinway of 1947 and the Blüthner of 1932!)

Despite the dissatisfaction surrounding the 1947 sessions EMI agreed to record Cortot the following year. From their standpoint Cortot, for all the problems associated with recording him, was still an artist indelibly associated with HMV and if his initial post-war recordings revealed a diminution of his always erratic technique, the radiant poetry of his inter­pretations and the kaleidoscopic range of his tone colours and dynamics had been cap­tured more faithfully than at any time in Cortot’s near thirty year recording career. Further­more, and difficult as it might be to comprehend given the ruthless commercialism of today’s record industry, EMI was then a caring company, one that was genuinely concerned about its most prestigious and loyal artists. In short, Cortot could not be abandoned.

There is no evidence that there had been any differences between Cortot and his new producer during the 1947 sessions—David Bicknell was too much a diplomat and a gentleman for unpleasantness—though his disenchantment with Cortot’s work was common knowledge within EMI, as was later to be apparent from a memo he wrote after attending the first of Cortot’s two London Chopin recitals in 1949. It would, he wrote, be ‘a waste of time and money to invite [Cortot] to play any difficult works’. He was convinced (rightly at this time—1948) that Cortot’s wish to commence the re-recording of Chopin’s complete works for solo piano in time for the centenary of the composer’s death in 1949 was a total non-starter. With materials in short supply and of erratic quality (see below) and Cortot in fragile form, Bicknell decided that the best way to proceed was to halve the number of sessions scheduled for 1948 to just two and to restrict the repertoire to short, technically undemanding lyrical pieces, which could be accommodated on 10-inch waxes. Cortot’s feelings regarding these restrictions can only be imagined but he must have been buoyed on entering the studio to begin the first of two morning-only sessions to find Fred Gaisberg, his producer in countless pre-war sessions, at the helm. (Bicknell joined the pair for the second session.) Of the nine sides recorded in 1948—unidentified parts of which were also recorded simultaneously on tape—six were released between September 1948 and November 1949, carefully cultivating the impression that Cortot remained an active HMV recording artist. Miniatures they might be, but these recordings are devastating examples of Cortot’s lyric playing and his unique sound.

Perhaps because of an improvement in Cortot’s overall condition—his cataract had been successfully removed in July—EMI imposed no restrictions for the 1949 sessions: indeed, there were regular exchanges with regard to the choice of repertoire. Initially Cortot had wanted to record as much as possible from the repertoire of his two imminent London all-Chopin recitals. Bicknell considered this an overly ambitious and expensive project. When Cortot countered with the suggestion of the complete Chopin Waltzes, Bicknell reminded him that neither the Nouvelles études or the Op 45 Prélude had been successfully recorded in 1947. Such to-ings and fro-ings also reveal that Cortot had a wish to record Fauré’s third Valse-Caprice and two Romances sans paroles—which would have made welcome additions to the Cortot discography had the suggestion been taken up. Four days—4 to 7 November—were allocated for recording; Cortot delayed an Austrian tour. However, hasty rearrangements of the schedule had to be made when Cortot’s wife was taken seriously ill. David Bicknell consequently spread the four sessions across just two days, the complete Book One of Debussy’s Préludes being recorded on 24 October and a selection of Chopin pieces on 4 November, after which Cortot immediately left the UK.

Cortot arrived in London to commence the 1949 sessions just days after his first appear­ance in France since the demonstrations against him in the capital in January 1947. He had accomplished something particularly dear to him: a major Chopin recital at the Salle Pleyel, Paris on the centenary of the com­poser’s death, 17 October 1949. Cortot now faced a gruelling few weeks. Aside from record­ing he was touring the UK, visiting Dublin and giving his London recitals marking the Chopin anniversary. On 11 November his programme contained nothing less than the 24 Preludes, Op 28, Sonata, Op 35, Fantaisie, Op 49, Waltz, Op 64/2, Berceuse, Op 57, Scherzo, Op 31, and Polonaise, Op 53. Two days later he offered the Sonata, Op 58, 4 Ballades, a collection of Études, Nocturnes and Waltzes and, by way of conclusion, the Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise, Op 22!

With David Bicknell recording in Europe and Fred Gaisberg now fully retired, Cortot found the friendly face of Lawrance Colling­wood as his producer for the 1949 sessions. Long a stalwart of the Gramophone Company as conductor, artist go-between and producer, Collingwood was of a gentle, sympathetic disposition and formidably experienced when it came to musical and recording matters. Significantly, there were no rejections from either of the 1949 sessions though it is ironic that the sound, with Cortot in finer form than he had been at any time since the war, should have been below the standard established in 1947 and 1948. It has not been possible to determine exactly why this should have been, though during this period several pianists (including Malcuzynski) had their sessions cancelled or delayed as a result of the effect London’s notorious ‘pea soup’ fogs had on the studio pianos. Additionally, as will be evident from the accompanying discography, there was the additional problem of noisy matrices, resulting from inferior raw materials, and the attendant increase in surface noise. EMI, aware of these deficiencies, chose to release the Debussy Préludes only on automatic sequenced 78-rpm records available to ‘special order’. When they were issued on LP in July 1953 (BLP 1006) from tape masters, the sound revealed little improvement. (The Chopin titles recorded in November 1949 will be included in the third volume in this series.)

In October 1954 HMV released an 12-inch LP (ALP 1197) exclusively confined to shorter works, so maintaining Cortot’s profile in the new and rapidly expanding microgroove catalogue. These laudable intentions were some­what undermined by the lacklustre pro­gramming of an LP which was, unbelievably, initially to be called A Bunch of Celebrated Encores! In its final form, as Alfred Cortot plays Popular Encores, the LP comprised mostly Chopin miniatures recorded that year although these were preceded by the 1948 ‘encore’ pieces with the exception of Cortot’s arrangement of Schubert’s Litanie. It would seem that transferring these titles from the approved 78-rpm masters proved impractic­able due to the technical imperfections inher­ent in the masters—as can readily be heard in Schumann’s Vogel als Prophet, complete with motor rumble and swish—and so new ‘takes’ were compiled from taped material from the sessions. The three interpretations which differ most from the original 78-rpm records make up the ‘appendix’ to this programme.

Bryan Crimp © 2005


Other albums in this series
'Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 1 – 1947 Schumann, Chopin & Debussy' (APR5571)
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