on 7 February 2014
I think I must propound a rule. Do not buy big boxes of CD transfers of 1930s recordings on the assurances of reviewers (including me) who are impressed by the contents until you have heard them. I have broken this rule many times, and sometimes I have got away with it. I'm not absolutely sure I have this time. I haven't heard much of this set, I confess, but I do know many of the 78 rpm originals, even a few of the acoustics. In fact, Cortot's playing was one of the reasons I began to buy 78s in the old Wardour Street Gramophone Exchange, - you could get them for a shilling each. I have heard much better transfers than this of his early discs(the first (1923) Carnaval (which follows the first EMI Schumann Concerto, over which we will draw a veil) is playing just now, complete with the sort of surface noise which has had its treble shaved off by noise-reduction to the point where the acoustic treble of the piano tone has been smoothed away). Fortunately its (electrically recorded)successors on the same disc from 1925, suddenly improve, and a Chopin group brings things into focus. The piano has arrived. Unfortunately it was already there in the acoustics, not least the two dazzling Mendelssohn pieces. But not in these transfers, which with all due respect to Mr Fowler, sound like nothing on earth. If Cortot weren't playing on them, they would qualify, in these transfers, as junk.
In the early days of LP EMI destroyed the metal masters of anything they transferred to LP, (which, given the standard of some of the transfers, should have been made a capital offence. Instead they have been rewarded with an extension of copyright protection (because otherwise Paul McCartney would starve in his old age?)). Unfortunately, because Cortot's recordings of the fifties didn't show him at his best, they transferred a lot of his earlier ones. Even as late as the eighties they could not do much with his wartime French Chopin recordings, which they issued in a digital form not much better than the original 78s. So other people, when they could, went back to the 78s and did what they could. The results were surprising.
If you are after a decent idea of what the Cortot of the thirties can and should sound like, the Biddulph transfers of his Schumann occasionally show up in the used market. Magic Talent issued some excellent transfers of Cortot's thirties and late twenties Schumann but their pressings are suspect though, perhaps on account of that, cheap. If you get them, back them up. An excellent series of transfers of the Chopin discs of the middle of his career was issued by Naxos and is still worth going after. Some of them are not duplicated here. The first complete recording of the Chopin Preludes, which is in both series, is superficially smoother here, though rather treble-light for a transfer of an electrical recording. The effect is to suggest to us that what matters in Chopin happens in the middle register, in a comfortable, post-prandial, rather Brahmsian way, which is not how Cortot actually plays him. House-style, perhaps, but the house style of the first LP transfers. And the same sort of sound is no help whatever in the Albeniz, which follows it, nor the Harmonious Blacksmith.
Naxos also issued the trios with Casals and Thibaud, which include an Archduke trio of such directness, sensitivity and centrality that only the odd butterfingered Cortot chord preserves an essential and Beethovenian element of human fallibility. As a performance it has still to be bettered. The pianist you hear on those 78s is much less anchored to the middle register that the one offered in the early electrical Chopin Preludes. All the trio recordings are in this box, as they should be.
In fact, Cortot the ensemble player, and accompanist to Panzera and Maggie Teyte in Schumann and Debussy, is one of the strengths of the set. As for Cortot the conductor, not all the Brandenburgs(energetically played, with, shock,horror, some innovative touches - listen to the bass pizzicati in 6 - and well transferred), to modern ears, deserve a second hearing, but no-one lucky enough, as thanks to a thoughtful French teacher in the early fifties I was, to encounter No 5 for the first time in this joyous performance would ever forget it, or become blinkered about Bach afterwards. (Only the soloists on the second disc, 36, including Cortet,(but not his partner in Brandenburg 4- which is well worth rehearing) Thibaud and Bouillon, are credited. Brandenburgs 1 and 2 are left with anonymous soloists by the booklet). The Brahms Double Concerto, never an easy piece to record, is heard in a recording which solves the problem by distancing Cortot's orchestra absurdly. Listening to it is essential for the playing of Casals and Thibaud, but one of the more frustrating experiences open to the collector of 78s.
The Chopin core of the set is the double box set issued over twenty years ago, which seems to have been reissued here(CZS 7 67359 2, currently available on Amazon, and an alternative for those who simply want Cortot's Chopin). Here the mid-register was, and is, pushed into the background and a slightly hard treble dominates. It could almost be a different pianist. Miscalculations mar the waltzes of the thirties, and surface noise those of the forties. But the phrasing still captivates. Again the technology frustrates - the 78s of the thirties captured the piano very well, and these transfers have been decoyed into overdoing it.
In many ways the set is a wild goose chase in which technology tries to run down elusive artistry and never quite catches it. By the time it's equal to the tone, the phrasing only comes in snatches, and the inaccuracies gradually intrude. I don't expect much agreement, but I suggest the wasted opportunity here was with the acoustic discs and the very early electricals. The artist of the early recording of the Preludes would have been worth all the trouble possible. Perhaps, eventually someone will give us the transfer they deserve. This set may gather a bit of dust occasionally, but the improvisatory spontaneities of Cortot's Chopin will always, in the end, make themselves heard.