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The eminent French pianist and teacher Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) was a pioneering and prolific recording artist. In recognition of the 50th anniversary of his death last year, EMI France producer Rémi Jacobs came out of retirement to produce a 40-disc box set covering more than four decades of recordings by an artist whose burnished tone, soaring phrasing and inimitable rubato make so much of his playing – wrong notes notwithstanding – seductive and intoxicating.

Included in this well sequenced compilation are Cortot’s earliest solo recordings, made in Camden beginning in 1919; his recordings for HMV from the 1920s and 1930s; seldom-issued French HMV discs from the 1940s; Japanese Victor recordings from 1952 (previously only available in that country); and some fascinating unpublished items, including excerpts from the fabled unissued cycle of Beethoven Sonatas. Cortot’s performances progress from dazzling note-perfect playing to captivating and visionary – if less accurate – interpretations, all bathed in a richly aromatic timbre uniquely his own.

The first 28 discs are a chronological traversal of Cortot’s solo and concerto recordings from 1919 to 1957. There are seven CDs of ardently played chamber music with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals (including Cortot’s conducting of the Brahms Double Concerto), while two more feature Cortot conducting Couperin and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (the first ever complete recording, with some idiosyncratic gestures but a gloriously fluid cadenza in the Fifth). Another CD finds Cortot as an attentive accompanist to Charles Panzéra in Schumann’s Dichterliebe and to Maggie Teyte in Debussy songs (where the pianist’s tone is particularly beguiling and the prepared piano in ‘Le faune’ from Fêtes galantes is intriguing), and the final three discs feature Cortot speaking about and playing movements of selected Beethoven Sonatas, closing with a moving spoken tribute to his star pupil Dinu Lipatti, who died in 1950 aged 33.

In many cases, the sound quality is superior to previous releases: the clarity of Cortot’s 1929 world premiere recording of the Liszt B minor Sonata highlights his tone and phrasing to a degree I had never previously heard, overriding his copious wrong notes in impact. Larger record labels usually opt for less surface noise, which can limit tonal depth, but overall the results here are impressive, often preferable to the excellent transfers on Naxos. That said, the Naxos editions of the 1930s Chopin Waltzes and Etudes feature brighter sound, and the Ninth Waltz and Etude Op 10 No 1 are transferred flat on this EMI set. Part of the first movement of the 1932 recording of Franck’s Prélude, Aria et Final suffers from an electronic hum that jars – a shame given the otherwise clear sound. The 1940s recordings have much less hiss here than on EMI France’s 1990s six-CD Cortot Chopin set, and the annoying fading in and out of individual works has been reduced in the Preludes, although not eliminated in the Waltzes and Etudes. Here, too, I was able to hear more of Cortot’s penetrating tone, expansive phrasing and evocative conceptions than ever before – and it is nice to hear different wrong notes from those in the more familiar but equally compelling 1930s readings!

Previously unpublished items include a wonderful 1957 reading of Chopin’s Preludes and Ballades – only occasionally stretched in terms of precision (probably thanks to skilful tape editing) – in which Cortot’s tonal richness is well served by the relatively modern recorded sound. He made takes of works he never recorded in the West in his Tokyo sessions, notably Chopin’s Second and Third Scherzos, but by 1952 his accuracy was already largely compromised (the Second is more captivating than the Third). The late-1950s Beethoven cycle, never released because of Cortot’s eroding technique past the age of 80, is represented in spoken comments and played excerpts of Opp 13, 27 No 2, 57, 90, 79 and 81a, and Cortot additionally plays without interruption the first movement of the ‘Appassionata’, the finale of Op 90 and the complete ‘Les Adieux’. There are moments of brilliance and beauty (notably in the ‘Moonlight’) but sadly there are too many tenuous passages, even for ardent Cortot admirers.

Late in life, Cortot also recorded the entire Chopin Mazurkas, the tapes of which were edited in 1957 but never released. The Concert Artist label issued a set of Mazurkas purportedly played by Cortot but without his trademark arched phrasing and deep touch. When the Joyce Hatto scandal implicated the label, it was a foregone conclusion that the Cortot release was also a hoax. Alas, two of them had made it onto a Japanese CD – and those same two recordings are included here on EMI for the first time. Cortot’s pupil John Guthrie Luke authenticated these tracks for the current set but, like the producer (whom I contacted about this matter), was certainly unaware that the Japanese CD used the Concert Artist tapes as source material. If this is Cortot, he was having an off day: the tone and phrasing lack his distinctive touch and the piano and studio sound are different from his other EMI recordings.

The attractive booklet focuses as much on Cortot’s often glossed-over involvement in the Vichy government as it does on discussing his artistry (odd, given that this is an ‘Anniversary Edition’) and regrettably lacks translations of his eloquent presentations about Beethoven and Lipatti. But the set’s flaws are much like the wrong notes in Cortot’s playing: occasionally annoying but minor in the context of the bigger picture. Whatever its oversights, this release’s contribution to the pianist’s legacy cannot be diminished; like Cortot’s playing itself, one wouldn’t want to be without it. Those familiar with his more commonly issued recordings will want the unpublished items, while those new to his artistry will find much to treasure in this collection of recordings from a era when individuality and imagination superseded note-perfect playing.

MARK AINLEY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Piano International, 2013 - ©Rhinegold Publishing