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Hyperion Records

APR5571 - Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 1 – 1947 Schumann, Chopin & Debussy
Abbey Road Studios, London, United Kingdom
Release date: June 2002
Total duration: 65 minutes 8 seconds

Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 1 – 1947 Schumann, Chopin & Debussy
Von fremden Ländern und Menschen  [1'38]  recorded 9 October 1947
Kuriose Geschichte  [0'57]  recorded 9 October 1947
Hasche-Mann  [0'31]  recorded 9 October 1947
Bittendes Kind  [0'51]  recorded 9 October 1947
Glückes genug  [1'11]  recorded 9 October 1947
Wichtige Begebenheit  [0'57]  recorded 9 October 1947
Träumerei  [2'11]  recorded 9 October 1947
Am Kamin  [0'46]  recorded 9 October 1947
Ritter vom Steckenpferd  [0'39]  recorded 9 October 1947
Fast zu ernst  [1'11]  recorded 9 October 1947
Fürchtenmachen  [1'46]  recorded 9 October 1947
Kind im Einschlummern  [1'27]  recorded 9 October 1947
Der Dichter spricht  [1'39]  recorded 9 October 1947
Nocturne in F minor Op 55 No 1  [4'24]  Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)  recorded 9 October 1947
No 1 in F minor: Andantino  [1'42]  recorded 10 October 1947
No 2 in D flat major: Allegretto  [1'32]  recorded 10 October 1947
No 3 in A flat major: Allegretto  [1'34]  recorded 10 October 1947
Prelude in C sharp minor Op 45  [4'03]  Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)  recorded 10 October 1947
Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum  [2'07]  recorded 10 October 1947
Jimbo's Lullaby  [2'29]  recorded 10 October 1947
Serenade for the Doll  [1'52]  recorded 10 October 1947
The snow is dancing  [2'22]  recorded 10 October 1947
The Little Shepherd  [1'51]  recorded 10 October 1947
Golliwog's Cake-Walk  [2'38]  recorded 10 October 1947
No 10: La cathédrale engloutie: Profondément calme  [4'24]  recorded 14 October 1947

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
Only weeks after peace had been restored to Europe in May 1945 Cortot was writing to The Gramophone Company from his home in Neuilly-sur-Seine about the prospect of recording again in London.

I trust that now the war is really ended—and let us hope it is for ever—to the greater glory of your great country and for the so much desired tranquillity of ours—it will be permitted to me to be able to resume in the friendly studio of Hayes [in fact Cortot meant the Abbey Road Studios in St. John’s Wood, London where he had made almost all his UK electrical recordings since 1931] and with my friends of The Gramophone Company, the recordings which have been interrupted for six years. Pathé-Marconi had begun here to have me record the whole works of Chopin, but the lack of waxes has for the time being stopped both the recordings and the production.
This should therefore be resumed before 1949, the anniversary of the centenary of the death of Chopin, which will provide the motive for the making of this vast repertoire and will assure its distribution.

The Gramophone Company promptly advised Cortot that post-war restrictions prevented them from making any immediate commitments—the rationing of life’s essentials, let alone recording waxes and metal for the manufacture of shellac discs, would be an endurance the British were to face until the early 1950s. Furthermore, there were some within the company who felt it should tread cautiously given Cortot’s questionable activities during the war. Eventually a new contract was drawn up in 1946 and arrangements made to resume recording the following year—the very time the repercussions of Cortot’s wartime work surfaced, thus abruptly curtailing his concert and recording schedules.

There was no denying the fact that under the Vichy Government Cortot had taken on the Presidency of the Order of Musicians and that he had given concerts in Germany. In his defence, his supporters maintained that the organisation which had benefited from the prestige of Cortot’s name was strictly professional and in no way political. More importantly, they asserted, Cortot had only undertaken his German tour on the condition that for every concert given before a German audience he would perform similarly at a prisoner-of-war camp. (It was also reported that when he was asked to make a second visit to Germany, Cortot’s ‘humanitarian terms’ were so excessive that his prospective hosts withdrew the invitation!) After the Liberation of France Cortot was obliged to appear first before a more or less ad hoc tribunal and, later, a more penetrating examination by the Comité d’épuration with regard to his activities during the Occupation. The latter condemned him to a year suspension from all activity within the city with retrospective effect from 1st April 1945.

Although free to concertise from April 1946, the anti-Cortot cabal was such that a further eight months elapsed before it was announced that the pianist would be reappearing in the capital (by which time Cortot had toured Britain, Switzerland and Italy as well as many prominent French towns). He was scheduled to make three appearances on 18 (am & pm) & 19 (pm) January 1947, with the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire conducted by André Cluytens, at which he was to perform the Schumann concerto. However, shortly before the first concert the Paris Syndicat des musiciens decreed that any member of the orchestra who performed with Cortot would forfeit their membership of the Société. In deference to this ultimatum Cortot elected to play solo works at each concert. At his appearances he enjoyed the unbridled enthusiasm of the vast majority of his audience though he also ran the gauntlet of vociferous protesters. With each succeeding concert ever more ugly personal insults were hurled at the pianist, even as he played. Although it was patently obvious that the majority of his audiences had been supportive, several newspapers chose to report the reverse and, much to the pianist’s bewilderment and consternation, such headlines as Cortot in a disorderly scene in Paris appeared across Europe, ultimately forcing him to take legal action against the Syndicat. Cortot was not to play in France again until 1949.

It consequently comes as no surprise to learn that by March 1947 Cortot had taken up permanent residence in Switzerland, where his wife had been living for some time while receiving treatment for a variety of illnesses. It was at this time that the repertoire for his first post-war sessions, rescheduled for October 1947, was finalised. With the complete Chopin survey still in mind, the Nouvelles études and Nocturnes 15 & 16 were put forward by The Gramophone Company. Additionally, Cortot asked to record the Polonaise-fantaisie as well as Debussy’s Children’s Corner, Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Franck’s Prélude, Aria et Finale. It was a hugely ambitious programme and six days (9–10 & 13–16 October) were set aside for work in Studio 3 at Abbey Road.

When Cortot arrived at St. John’s Wood in London he found a very different milieu to what had existed previously. To all intents and purposes, the legendary Fred Gaisberg was gone: although not yet in full retirement he was content merely to visit informally the sessions of those artists to whom he felt closest—as he did on the 14th & 15th October. His chair was now officially occupied by his former assistant, David Bicknell, who appeared less tolerant of Cortot’s foibles, be it finger slips, resulting in a higher rejection level of precious waxes, or what he perceived as the pianist’s lack of pre-session preparation. Gaisberg, working in more relaxed and unrestricted times, had been infinitely more indulgent, well aware that Cortot’s inspiration-of-the-moment approach to recording might well produce a high number of wasted waxes but that it was equally capable of producing masters of incomparable music-making. (Bicknell’s undisguised preference was for Artur Rubinstein, also busy at Abbey Road at this time, who, though demanding and autocratic, approached the recording process with what Bicknell considered to be a greater degree of professionalism. Rubinstein also happened to be a hugely commercial artist—far more so than Cortot who, at this period, was attracting neither the critical nor popular acclaim of earlier years.)

In all, Cortot visited the studio on four of the allocated days. As will be apparent from the accompanying discography, the first two days (9 & 10 October) were profitable—Cortot’s chosen Debussy and Schumann titles were set down in the knowledge that there was every chance of them being published. Little progress, however, was made on the Chopin front, as is evident from the surviving unpublished sides (generously made available to APR by Don Hodgman). The Polonaise-Fantaisie in particular appeared to make excessive demands of Cortot at this time; his heroic, all-encompassing conception cruelly sabotaged by recalcitrant fingers though, in all fairness, the necessity to shoehorn the work onto two 12 inch sides unquestionably put Cortot under undue pressure. Had he been able to ‘spread’ himself a little more, his interpretation would possibly have been less compromised, his technique held less to ransom. (This work had been recorded in April 1943 in Paris as part of the complete Chopin project though it remained unpublished.) That is perhaps less well known is that Cortot was working at this time under a significant handicap: a cataract in his left eye had been diagnosed in June 1946 but a subsequent operation had proved a total failure. (It was not until July 1949 that Cortot was treated successfully.)

The sessions over, Cortot asked David Bicknell to select the sides he considered suitable for publication, an uncharacteristic request and surely an indication that the pianist was well aware that his return to the studio had not been an unqualified success. Due to Bicknell’s absence abroad, Cortot had to wait until January 1948 before he learnt that the Schumann and Debussy titles were to be published (during the summer months of 1948) but that Bicknell considered the release of the other titles ‘would be harmful to your reputation’. Cortot appears to have taken the verdict on the chin though it did not prevent him from expressing the wish to record a Weber Sonata when next in London!

David Bicknell was obviously disillusioned with the fruits of the October 1947 sessions. While it could be argued that had he let Cortot record wax after wax the pianist would ultimately have reached his goal, Bicknell was constrained by critical shortages, to the extent that each side Cortot recorded during 1947 was allocated just two waxes (with the exception of two Chopin titles). In the event Cortot never rerecorded the Polonaise-Fantaisie commercially though he did revisit the Nouvelles études, this time spread across one-and-a-half 12-inch sides, and the Prélude Op.45 in 1949 (both included in a future volume in this series) with greater success.

Bryan Crimp © 2002

Other albums in this series
'Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 2 – Franck, 'encores' & Debussy' (APR5572)
Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 2 – Franck, 'encores' & Debussy
MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99 APR5572  Download only  
'Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 3 – Chopin & Mendelssohn' (APR5573)
Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 3 – Chopin & Mendelssohn
MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99 APR5573  Download only  
'Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 4 – Schumann, Schubert, Chopin & Liszt' (APR5574)
Alfred Cortot – The Late Recordings, Vol. 4 – Schumann, Schubert, Chopin & Liszt
MP3 £6.99FLAC £6.99ALAC £6.99 APR5574  Download only  
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