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Alfred Denis Cortot

Alfred Denis Cortot

Alfred Denis Cortot

*26 IX 1877 Nyon, †15 VI 1962 Lozanna

Alfred Denis Cortot - was born in a French-Swiss family. He started studying piano in Geneva at the age of 5. In 1886, he entered the Paris Conservatoire in the class of Émile Decombes and Louis Diémer. He graduated in 1896, obtaning the Premier Prix. He made his debut a year later at the Concerts Colonne and Concerts Lamoureux series. His fascination with Wagner (which he was first exposed to by pianist Édouard Risler) culminated in Cortot's stay in Bayreuth in 1898-1901, where he worked as a répétiteur. After his return to Paris in 1902, he conducted the French premieres of Götterdämmerung and Parsifal. In the following years Cortot was active as a pianist, conductor and chamber musician (he co-founded a famous piano trio with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals, which was active in 1905-39), becoming a leading figure of the French musical life. In 1919 together with Auguste Mangeot, he founded a new conservatoire named École Normale de Musique, existing to this day and numbered among the leading music establishments in Europe; among its teachers were Pablo Casals, Paul Dukas, Wanda Landowska. During World War II Cortot supported the German occupation of France; he accepted the position of Haut-Commissaire for arts in the Vichy government, was a member of the Conseil National, and appeared at official concerts in occupied Paris as well as in Germany (1942). In 1945, he left France and settled in Switzerland, but continued to appear on the concert stage, playing notably in London and the Prades Festival.

Cortot made his first recordings as early as 1902 (he accompanied the singer Félia Litvinne in a Massenet song). Most of his recordings date from 1929-37 and 1947-53. He was the first pianist to record Liszt's Sonata in B minor (1929) and Debussy's Préludes (1926). He left few recordings with orchestra (including several versions of Schumann's Concerto in A minor), but many chamber ones with Thibaud and Casals, including the trios of Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, as well as the songs of Debussy (with Maggie Teye) and Schumann (outstanding Dichterliebe with Charles Panzéra, 1935). Cortot's interpretation of Debussy's Violin Sonata with Jacques Thibaud (1929) remains a phonographical benchmark to this day. His most important solo recordings are the works of Schumann, Débussy and especially Chopin: he made two complete versions of the ballades, etudes and waltzes, four of the preludes, one of the impromptus; other works include the two sonatas (five versions of the B flat minor), Berceuse (six versions), the B flat minor and C sharp minor scherzos, Fantasy in F minor (two versions), six nocturnes, 3 polonaises, Concerto in F minor (under John Barbirolli, 1935). He never recorded the mazurkas. An extensive collection of Chopin recordings was published by EMI, but some older recordings are only available on collectors' labels (Nimbus, Biddulph, Music&Arts).

His piano style grew from the tradition from the French school, but Cortot widened its repertoire and developed its technique. His recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, although acoustically imperfect, show an outstanding sensitivity to sound colour, a crystalline tone, a thoughtful use of the two pedals, a wide palette of dynamic nuances, displayed not only in the works of Debussy and Ravel, but also Chopin and Liszt. He preferred fast tempos, and was known for his idiosyncratic rubato, frequent changes of tempo, and generous ritardandos. His beautifully unfolded, plastic melodies were inspired by vocal music; Cortot's quintessentially poetic play was often imbued with declamative emphasis. He knew how to control large form, but had a soft spot for miniatures: it was in Albéniz's Malagueña, Debussy's La fille aux cheveux de lin, Chopin's Etude in F minor from the Méthode that he rose to the heights of his subtle, evocative, poetic style. Cortot's post-war recordings show a diminished technique (with many finger laps) and a more eccentric interpretative style.

Cortot's repertoire was somewhat limited. Despite his love for German music, he played little or no Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber (with the exception of his famous recording of the Sonata in A flat major), Schubert or Brahms. One notable exception was Schumann: he left recordings of the Kreisleriana, Papillons, Carnaval, Davidsbündlertänze, and the Études symphoniques; with Chopin's etudes and waltzes and some chamber recordings, these number among Cortot's best interpretations. He never played Russian music, and his virtuoso repertoire was limited to a few Liszt works. At the core of his emploi were Chopin and French composers: Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, and to a lesser extent Ravel, Chabrier, Franck, Albéniz.

Cortot was one of the leading piano teachers of his time. In 1907-23 he lectured at the Paris Conservatoire, followed by the École Normale de Musique in Paris, which he founded. Among his most famous pupils were Dinu Lipatti, Samson François, Vlado Perlemuter, Dino Ciani, Gina Bachauer; Clara Haskil was also his student for some time. He is also remembered for his writings, especially the Cours d'interprétation, in which he gave an extensive summary of his teaching method both in the technical and interpretative aspect. Very interesting from the point of view of performance history are his performing editions of the works of Chopin (complete works in 10 vols., ed. Senart 1915-39, Salabert 1941-7), Liszt and Schumann, in which he included a number of his own interpretative ideas and variants. His heritage also includes a rich music library (10,000 vols.), including rare prints and annotated scores; the bulk of this collection is now held at the Médiathèque Musicale Mahler in Paris.

Wojciech Bońkowski

August 2006 


Bibliography:
Thomas Manshardt, Aspects of Cortot, APR, Wark 1994
Alfred Cortot, Aspects de Chopin, Albin Michel, Paris 1949
Alfred Cortot, Cours d'interprétation, R. Legouix, Paris 1934, Champion, Paris 1980
Alfred Cortot, La musique française de piano, Rieder, Paris 1930-44, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1981
Alfred Cortot, Les principes rationnels de la technique pianistique, Senart, Paris 1928, Salabert, Paris 1986
Bibliothèque Alfred Cortot. Première partie: Traités et autres ouvrages théoriques des XVe, XVIe, XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, R. Couloma, Argenteuil 1936 
Discography:

http://my.dreamwiz.com/fischer/Cortot/discography-cortot.htm
Filmography (officially released items only):

The Art of Piano: Great Pianists of the 20th Century, dir. Donald Sturrock, NVC Arts/Warner 29199-3 (DVD) [Cortot plays the Waltz in A flat major Op. 69 No. 1 and the Etude in C major Op. 10 No. 1 by Chopin, and holds a masterclass on Der Dichter spricht from Schumann's Kinderszenen]
The Golden Age of the Piano, ed. Peter Rosen, Universal 075 092 (DVD) [includes 1936 footage, with Cortot playing Debussy's Serenade for a Doll and Golliwog's Cake-walk]

 
Alfred Denis Cortot in Youtube:
Cortot Alfred Denis Ballade F minor
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Cortot Alfred Denis Ballade in F major,

1926

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Cortot Alfred Denis Ballade in G minor,
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08:52
Cortot Alfred Denis Barcarolle,
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07:56
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in A flat major, Op. 10 No. 10
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02:00
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in A flat major, Op. 25 No. 1
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02:06
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in A minor, Op. 10 No. 2
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01:29
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in A minor, Op. 25 No. 11
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Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in A minor, Op. 25 No. 4
views: 1861
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01:38
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in B minor, Op. 25 No. 10
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Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in C major, Op. 10 No. 1
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Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in C major, Op. 10 No. 7
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01:37
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in C minor, Op. 10 No. 12
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02:44
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in C minor, Op. 25 No. 12
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02:40
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in C sharp minor,
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04:46
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in C sharp minor, Op. 10 No. 4
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02:09
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in D flat major, Op. 25 No. 8
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01:05
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in E flat major, Op. 10 No. 11
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01:51
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in E flat minor, Op. 10 No. 6
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02:56
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in E minor, Op. 25 No. 5
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02:44
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in F major, Op. 10 No. 8
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02:29
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in F major, Op. 25 No. 3
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01:44
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in F minor, Op. 10 No. 9
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02:13
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in F minor, Op. 25 No. 2
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01:23
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in G flat major, Op. 10 No. 5
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01:41
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in G flat major, Op. 25 No. 9
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01:00
Cortot Alfred Denis Etude in G sharp minor, Op. 25 No. 6
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01:54
Cortot Alfred Denis Fantasy F minor part 1
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08:16
Cortot Alfred Denis Fantasy F minor part 2
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03:15
Cortot Alfred Denis Impromptu in F sharp major,
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05:01
Cortot Alfred Denis Prelude in B minor, Op. 28 No. 6 Preludes no. 6 - 11 & Nocturn Op. 55 no. 2
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Cortot Alfred Denis Prelude in C minor, Op. 28 No. 20
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Cortot Alfred Denis Prelude in E flat minor, Op. 28 No. 14 Preludes no. 14-18
views: 1971
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10:40
Cortot Alfred Denis Sonata in B flat minor,  1st and 2nd movement
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09:25
Cortot Alfred Denis Sonata in B flat minor,  3rd and 4th movement
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07:52
Cortot Alfred Denis Waltz in A flat major [Op. 69 No. 1]
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03:31
Cortot Alfred Denis Waltz in A flat major [Op. 69 No. 1]
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Cortot Alfred Denis Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64 No. 2

Recorded in 1929

 

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