Alfred Cortot – The Masterclasses

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Bach,Mozart & Beethoven
LABELS: Sony
WORKS: Works by Bach, Mozart & Beethoven
PERFORMER: Alfred Cortot (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: S3K 89698

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The Swiss-born pianist Alfred Cortot was renowned for his thoughts on interpretation. His playing – fluent, confidently free, and hypnotically yet humanely expressive – constitutes one of the significant styles of early- and mid-20th century pianism.

This set of three discs, featuring his teaching and playing in a number of masterclasses (1954-60), demonstrates that extra-musical sources fueled Cortot’s musical imagination. Thus in his view, Beethoven wrote the Sonata Op. 110 ‘at a dead child’s bedside’, Mozart’s sonatas K310 and K331 were both influenced by the death of Mozart’s mother, knowing the poetry of Mickiewicz is essential for understanding Chopin’s ballades, and so on.

Cortot frequently cites or quotes other music as either analogous or contradictory to the pieces that he discusses in these recordings – he sees the characters of Don Giovanni also interacting in Mozart’s C minor Fantasia, K475, for example, while the energy of the finale in Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 101 should be impish like Till Eulenspiegel rather than powerful like the opening of Liszt’s E flat Concerto.

Even generalised emotional labels such as ‘chivalric’, ‘tender’ or ‘despairing’ elicit from him vividly characterised (if sketchily played) demonstrations from the keyboard. Cortot made no commercial recordings of most of these pieces, including Bach’s B flat Partita, five Beethoven sonatas from Op. 81a onward, and Schumann’s Fantasie.

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These ‘performances’ – fragmentary, technically informal (even by Cortot’s notoriously loose standards), and accompanied by spoken, sometimes indecipherable commentary in French – discourage casual listening. But it goes without saying that pianophiles will relish studying this set, while potent moments from four Chopin mazurkas and a relatively comprehensive, daringly fiery account of the same composer’s C sharp minor Scherzo represent highlights among the many fleeting musical treasures. David Breckbill