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Hyperion Records

APR5573 - Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 3 – Chopin & Mendelssohn

Recording details: Various dates
Abbey Road Studios, London, United Kingdom
Release date: September 2007
Total duration: 74 minutes 14 seconds

Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 3 – Chopin & Mendelssohn
Nocturne in F major Op 15 No 1  [4'24]  Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)  recorded 17 October 1951
No 3 in E major, 'Tristesse': Lento ma non troppo  [4'04]  recorded 16 October 1951
No 4 in C sharp minor: Presto  [2'14]  recorded 16 October 1951
No 2 in F minor: Presto  [1'33]  recorded 16 October 1951
No 1 in F minor: Andantino  [1'50]  recorded 4 November 1949
No 2 in D flat major: Allegretto  [1'39]  recorded 4 November 1949
No 3 in A flat major: Allegretto  [1'46]  recorded 4 November 1949
No 15 in D flat major, 'Raindrop': Sostenuto  [4'34]  recorded 30 October 1950
Prelude in C sharp minor Op 45  [4'01]  Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)  recorded 4 November 1949
Berceuse in D flat major Op 57  [4'04]  Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)  recorded 4 November 1949
Waltz in A minor Op 34 No 2  [4'14]  Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)  recorded 16 October 1951
Waltz in F minor Op 70 No 2  [2'05]  Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)  recorded 16 October 1951
Theme: Andante sostenuto  [0'47]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 1: [poco più mosso]  [0'37]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 2: Più animato  [0'29]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 3: Vivace  [0'22]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 4: [delicatissimo]  [0'21]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 5: Agitato  [0'28]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 6: [a tempo]  [0'19]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 7: Presto con fuoco  [0'20]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 8: Allegro vivace  [0'19]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 9: [untitled]  [0'25]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 10: Moderato  [0'50]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 11: [molto cantando]  [0'37]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 12: Presto  [0'28]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 13: Tempo di tema  [0'46]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 14: Adagio  [1'01]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 15: Poco a poco più agitato  [0'21]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 16: Allegro vivace  [0'18]  recorded 30 October 1950
Variation 17: [untitled]  [2'07]  recorded 30 October 1950

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.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The second volume in this series (APR 5572) included the First Book of Debussy Préludes recorded by Alfred Cortot on 24 October 1949. A second day of recording in 1949 (4 November), again com­prising two sessions, was devoted entirely to Chopin. In all, seven sides were recorded, all were approved. They are presented here together with Cortot’s published Chopin recordings from 1950 and 1951.

The ambitious aim of no fewer than five 1950 sessions, spread over three days in October, was to record Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, Mendelssohn’s Variations séri­euses and Schumann’s Papillons. Addi­tion­ally there was to be a re-recording of Franck’s Prélude, Aria et Final, first waxed in 1947 but rejected, albeit not by the pianist – this previously unpublished recording was included in volume two – with any remaining time devoted to ‘popular’ Chopin. However, David Bicknell, in charge of HMV’s Classical Department and the supervisor of the sessions, had serious misgivings about Cortot’s playing since the pianist’s return to the Abbey Road studios after the war. To be blunt, Bicknell regarded Cortot as a spent force, being of the opinion that his always-erratic technique was now too frail to cope with any­thing but the most undemanding repertoire. Although Bicknell expressed these concerns quite forcibly within EMI, when dealing direct with Cortot he was always the diplomat – as is apparent when he wrote to the pianist in an attempt to scale down the proposed 1950 programme. Bicknell confessed that he was ‘rather concerned that all these [planned recordings] are substantial works occupying several records with the exception of the Invitation to the Waltz. The purchasing power of the public is declining all over Europe and consequently there is a greater demand for single records than for works which are more expensive to procure. I suggest, therefore, that we repeat some of the more popular individual numbers which I am sure you have in your repertoire.’

This, it has to be stated, was the very time full-scale recordings, featuring the likes of Furt­wängler and Cantelli, Heifetz and Milstein, Rubinstein and Edwin Fischer, were being released on HMV’s new ‘International’ Red Label. Could Cortot have been too busy with his hectic touring schedule not to have noticed these highly promoted recordings? Probably not, because when he arrived at Abbey Road in 1950 work began on the entire prearranged programme. But, as is apparent from the accompanying discography, the sessions proved seriously unproductive. The Schumann and Weber titles were recorded but remain unpublished to this day; the Mendelssohn, which concludes this volume, was only suc­cess­fully encompassed after repeated ‘takes’ were recorded across two sessions; the re-recording of the Franck was not even attempted; just two Chopin sides were recorded, only one of which was published, and the final evening session of 30 October was abandoned. It was definitely not a good time for the seventy-three-year-old Cortot – and he had tried so hard to be ‘on form’ to the extent of (uncharacteristically) requesting a practice session before recording began on 24 October.

These setbacks must have been especially frustrating for Cortot given that, just weeks before the 1950 sessions began, he had asked to add to the list of recordings to be made Chopin’s Funeral March Sonata. In a letter to Bicknell he touchingly explained the reason for this request: ‘The Sonata funèbre … has in fact been closely associated with all the episodes of my career, and of which people have been so kind as to admit that my interpretation was not devoid of interest! … [It would also be] an example for the young pianists, who are so little imbued with the Romantic spirit.’

Bicknell’s reply is not known. At around the same time Bicknell received a suggestion from Cortot’s UK agent, Ibbs & Tillett, that perhaps the pianist could record J S Bach’s six Violin Sonatas with George Enescu. As Mrs Tillett explained, this approach was intended to be a helping hand for Enescu: ‘They are very old friends and from what Cortot told me, Enescu is, financially, not too happily placed.’ Bicknell unsurprisingly declined with the explanation that ‘we have so many violinists under contract’ (one of whom was his wife, Gioconda de Vito).

Despite these tribulations, four sessions, spread across two days in October 1951, were allocated for more Cortot recordings. In the usual repertoire discussions conducted by letter in the months prior to the sessions, Cortot again asked to record major Chopin citing, in no order of preference, the complete Études, Ballades, Polonaises, Waltzes and Préludes as well as the Sonatas Opp 35 & 58. He also wryly pointed out that ‘wrongly or rightly, I am regarded as the best-qualified interpretant of the Polish Master, and as, on the occasion of the eventuality which my age brings nearer to me every year, it will soon be too late to remedy this!’. Unmoved, David Bicknell opted for the more esoteric offerings suggested by Cortot: Chabrier’s Pièces pittoresques and what the pianist intriguingly described as ‘three unfinished works of Debussy of which I possess the manuscript’. Although the 1951 sessions were scheduled to be supervised by Bicknell, when Cortot arrived at Abbey Road he discovered a new young producer: George Martin, whose name is now inextricably linked with The Beatles! In the event, nine sides of Chopin and two of Schubert were committed to tape, some being simul­ta­ne­ously recorded on 78-rpm matrices. Chabrier, Debussy and large-scale Chopin went by the board.

At this time (1951) the actual recording process had become more involved due to the competing formats in the market place. The shellac 78-rpm disc, obviously doomed but still selling, was giving way to vinyl. But would the preferred format be the 45-rpm seven-inch disc, a format at this time bizarrely favoured by EMI, or the 331/3-rpm ten- and twelve-inch long-playing disc? As a consequence, all ‘takes’ were now recorded on tape – though only as 78-rpm sides – while some were simultaneously (and it appears randomly) recorded on 78-rpm matrices (or ‘waxes’). There was no attempt to edit between one taped ‘take’ and another – some­thing which today appears to be blind­ingly obvious (and which could have erased Cortot’s disfiguring ‘spill’ in the central climax of an otherwise impressive performance of the Barcarolle). These 1951 recordings were scattered across all three formats though, almost without exception, they enjoyed only a brief life in the catalogue. In the UK, six sides were released on 45-rpm and/or 78-rpm discs while the remaining five appeared only in the USA on an RCA LP which, ironically, soon disappeared due to the divorce between RCA Victor and EMI. Few, if any, of these recor­dings have previously appeared on silver disc. It has only been possible to locate the complete 1951 titles (the Schubert will appear in volume four) thanks to the generosity of Malcolm Binns. (As has been mentioned in the annotation accompanying earlier volumes in this series, many of the UK shellac discs of this period were unusually noisy due to inferior post-war raw materials – as remains apparent in the Chopin Études and ‘Raindrop’ Prélude and the Mendelssohn variations.)

Two waltzes – Op 64/1 and Op 69/1 – were recorded more than once during the period under survey. Although only the earliest (1949) of three versions of Op 64/1 was published, both versions of Op 69/1 (1949 and 1951) were released, the first in the UK, the second in the USA. Both interpretations are, given Cortot’s spontaneous approach to music-making, sur­prisingly similar although there are, inevitably, subtly different nuances. If they, and the other performances here, betray the waning powers of the elderly pianist, there is still no doubting Cortot’s unique affinity for Chopin. Astonish­ing too is the fearlessness of his approach to all this repertoire, especially noticeable in Chopin’s Waltz Op 70/1 and the Mendelssohn variations. Any other pianist of his age and with his infirmities would almost certainly have opted for a more cautious approach. Not Cortot!

Bryan Crimp © 2007

Other albums in this series
'Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 1 – 1947 Schumann, Chopin & Debussy' (APR5571)
Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 1 – 1947 Schumann, Chopin & Debussy
Buy by post £8.50 APR5571 
'Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 2 – Franck, 'encores' & Debussy' (APR5572)
Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 2 – Franck, 'encores' & Debussy
Buy by post £8.50 APR5572 
'Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 4 – Schumann, Schubert, Chopin & Liszt' (APR5574)
Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 4 – Schumann, Schubert, Chopin & Liszt
Buy by post £8.50 APR5574 
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