“Steinway pianos give additional beauty to the great masterworks of music.”
One of the 20th century’s most influential — yet inimitable — classical figures, Alfred Cortot was born in 1877 in Switzerland to a French father and a Swiss mother, and he based his long career as a pianist, conductor and teacher in Paris. Cortot was one of his era’s most renowned interpreters of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Saint-Saëns and Franck, his best recordings setting an enduring standard for poetry in motion. In 1925, the pianist made the first electrical recording of classical music, for the Victor label in New Jersey, featuring music by Chopin and Schumann. Among his hundreds of subsequent recordings was the first complete version of Chopin’s Preludes Op. 28. In holding up Cortot as a paragon of Chopin playing even decades after his death, The New York Times described his method as combining “lucidity with spontaneity.... It is almost modern in its lack of sentimentality and attention to structure; yet it is unmistakably Romantic in its insistence on freedom and variety. Each line is suffused with subtle detail, with interior contours and dynamic shadings. But these are not indulgent ornaments; they reveal rather than cloud the music’s intentions.” Cortot’s way with the Gallic modernism of Debussy and Ravel was also marked by a deeply personal sense of color and feeling. Not only a soloist, Cortot co-founded one of Europe’s most famous chamber groups in 1905 with violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablo Casals, the trio recording some of the earliest best-sellers of Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms. As a conductor, Cortot was the leading young French Wagnerian of his time, even working at Bayreuth; later, he toured the world as a pianist, playing thousands of concerts, including all five Beethoven concertos at Carnegie Hall and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the composer present.
As an editor, Cortot made important editions of the keyboard music of Chopin, Schumann and Debussy, among many others. Teacher-broadcaster David Dubal has said: “These are among the most intriguing editions ever made, providing a fund of splendid annotations and ingenious exercises for overcoming technical problems. Cortot was one of the great piano minds, and his writings are sprinkled with his own constant wonder at the masterpieces he played.” Cortot was one of the most inspirational piano teachers of the mid-20th century, his pupils including Dinu Lipatti, Gina Bachauer, Samson François, Clara Haskil, Magda Tagliaferro and Vlado Perlemuter. Tagliaferro described the virtues of her teacher’s playing this way: “His sound was pure enchantment.... The images that he conjured up were absolutely visionary.” Like Artur Schnabel, Cortot represents a bygone era, one when music was an aspirational art and note-perfect performances were not the be-all-to-end-all. His recordings were always spontaneous creations, and his concerts — especially in later years — could be marred by memory lapses, smudged notes, outright clinkers. Yet the poetry was always there. Critic Harold Schonberg, who admired “the sharpness, point, clarity of line, unmistakable rubato and sheer intelligence” of Cortot’s playing, said of the pianist’s mistakes: “One accepted them, as one accepts scars or defects in paintings by an old master.” Subsequent generations of top pianists were inspired by his example on record. Alfred Brendel praised Cortot’s “three-dimensional playing,” saying: “He is the one pianist who equally satisfies my mind, my senses, my emotions.” steinway artist Murray Perahia, another Cortot devotee, supervised a set of recordings that feature Cortot masterclasses taped between 1954 and 1960, two years before his death. Perahia said: “He represents a kind of piano playing that has virtually disappeared: free, impulsive, personal, daring; yet at the same time, cogent and intelligent… First and foremost, he thought music ‘must live’.” —Bradley Bambarger