Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) was a giant among French pianists in the first half of the 20th century. Among other things he formed the foremost piano trio of the time with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals. His earliest job of note was a répétiteur for the chorus of the Bayreuth Festival in the late 1890s; and he introduced Götterdämmerung to Paris in 1902. He was an esteemed recitalist and made many recordings which are still treasured by cognoscenti even today. He made the first ever recording of the Liszt B Minor Sonata. He was particularly noted for his Chopin and Schumann. Among his pupils were Clara Haskil, Magda Tagliaferro, Dinu Lipatti, Vlado Perlemutter, Raymond Lewenthal and Samson François.
Cortot is not particularly noted as an arranger for piano and this disc contains arrangements I'd never even heard of before. Yet, they are marveously done and make one eager to hear more, if more exist. This CD does not suggest that it is the first of several CDs to come.
First up is a truly amazing arrangement for one pianist of the duo-piano 'Dolly Suite' by Gabriel Fauré. As one who has played this suite countless times it is hard to pick up where Cortot had to pare or rearrange. The arrangement sounds absolutely true to Fauré's original. The young Chinese pianist, He Yue (b. 1990), plays it correctly but without the last bit of insouciance inherent in the Suite. Interestingly, this is the first solo piano recording I've encountered that was actually recorded in China, in this case at the conservatory in Gulangyu where He Yue currently teaches.
Bach's 'Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565', has been arranged for piano by many others (among them Ferruccio Busoni, Carl Tausig, Percy Grainger and Ignaz Friedman) and has often been virtuosically elaborated. This arrangement sticks pretty much to the original, making allowances for limitations inherent in a piano transcription of an organ work. He Yue plays it without a lot of flair but there are some heroic moments.
Next comes arrangements of pieces familiar to all: Brahms's 'Lullaby', the 'Largo' from Bach's F Minor Keyboard Concerto (familiar to some from the movement's appearance as the sinfonia in the cantata 'Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV 156'), the slow movement from Chopin's 'Cello Sonata, Op. 65', and Schubert's beautifully childlike Lied 'Heidenröslein'. All are lovely and all are played idiomatically by He Yue.
Finally, the trickiest of the arrangements to pull off by Cortot, his piano only version of Franck's Violin Sonata in A Major. He Yue shows his virtuosic chops in the thrilling second movment, but most amazing in this arrangement is the lovely canon in the last movement whose threads in the original are concurrent in the violin and piano line. Somehow Cortot manages to place the canonic voices in the piano while the pianist is also playing the original's accompaniment, a superior effort. He Yue does this arrangement proud and it is the violin sonata arrangement that makes this CD worth having.