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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.
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Any serious student of the piano should own this box. I'm not serious, but I'll keep it anyway.

It doesn't claim absolute completeness, but comes pretty close. For 65 quid* (blimey!) you get 40 CDs + an 80 page booklet.

Alfred Cortot had an unbalanced recorded repertoire.
He was a Chopin specialist: Half his solo piano recordings are of music by Chopin.
His only rival was Arthur Rubinstein, but their repertoire was different:
Rubinstein left us with 3 complete sets each of the Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Polonaises and Scherzi.
He avoided the Preludes (aside from once in 1946), and Etudes.
Cortot left us with 4 complete sets of the Preludes, and 2 sets of Etudes (all in this box).
He avoided the Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Polonaises and Scherzi (aside from a few pieces).

Perhaps the division of labor was EMI's idea, but I can't imagine that their marketing department was happy with 4 sets of Preludes from the same artist.

This box also includes 2 sets of Ballades, 2 sets of Waltzes, 1 set of Impromptus, 4 recordings of Sonata 2, and 2 recordings of Sonata 3.
I am frankly overwhelmed trying to comprehend it all.
Anything worth doing is worth doing three times. I can sympathize (I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

CDs 1-28 are arranged in chronological order by recording date. CDs 29-40 are arranged by genre.

CDs 1-3: Acoustic recordings, 1916-1925. Most of these are American Victors.

CDs 4-28: Electrical recordings, 1926-1957.
It begins with the 1926 recording of Chopin's Preludes. It ends with a 1957 recording of the same (previously unpublished).
You also get the 1933 and 1942 recordings. Amazing.

CDs 29-34: Chamber Music with Thibaud (Franck Sonata twice), Casals, and some lesser-known colleagues + Brahms Double Concerto.

CDs 35-36: Cortot Conducts - primarily Bach's Brandenburg Concerti.

CD 37: Songs with Charles Panzera (Schumann) and Maggie Teyte (Debussy). No texts or translations (sigh).

CDs 38-40: Master Class in Beethoven Sonatas, recorded 1958-1959 at L'Ecole Normale de Musique. In French (no translation) with musical examples.
Does not duplicate the material already issued in a Sony 3 CD set (!)

The booklet includes a 4 page article about Cortot in French and English + 21 pages of photographs + a listing of CD contents.

RECORDING QUALITY: Remastering by "Studio Art et Son, Paris, 2012".
All 40 CDs are mono, even CDs 28 and 38-40 which were recorded 1957-1960, well into the stereo era.
The electrical recordings are pretty good.
I was shocked by the sound of the acoustic recordings, 1919-1925, on CDs 1-3.

In my experience, acoustic piano recordings sound like a toy piano: all mid-range, no highs or lows.
These are much better than that.
I have heard of computer software that can synthesize an octave of highs and lows based on the information in the original acoustic recording.
I don't know if that was done here, but these sound like early electricals.
Or perhaps credit goes to The Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey.

The improved sound highlights the seediness of the orchestra in the Schumann Concerto. Probably unavoidable with 25 musicians crammed into a tiny acoustic recording studio.
Spirited performance nonetheless


There is no index to the music in this collection.
A jumble of composers spread over 40 CDs. Too much information. No context.
The CDs come in plain paper sleeves. No hint as to the contents.
All CD labels read: "Alfred Cortot: Anniversary Edition".
No other details (keep the booklet handy).

Aargh! ... Buy it anyway.

* Yes, I admit it. I'm an American. I don't have a squiggly L with a line through it on my keyboard.

P.S. Six weeks have passed, and I've finally finished listening to everything.
A rewarding experience, but exhausting.
I'm glad I gave it five stars, but wish it was more user-friendly.
Still five stars.
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on 3 October 2013
Very comprehensive survey of the finest Chopin pianist of his time, in fine transfers. An absolute must for anyone interested in the romantic tradition. It is also wonderful to have all the Cortot-Thibaud-Casals recordings in one place.
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on 3 October 2013
Included among the 40 CDs are the well known sets of Chopin Preludes and Etudes, Ballades and more, and also noteworthy recordings of works by Schumann, Debussy, Mendelssohn and others. Multiple versions of several of these works reflect the changing developments in sound recording, from as early as 1919 through to 1959, with Abbey Road Studios the primary recording venue from 1932. Sound quality varies, as can be expected, and one reviewer has noted that the vinyl collections he remembers were superior. That the remastering for this 2012 box set edition has its shortcomings when compared to the original vinyl releases, I can not tell, but overall I think the remastering here has been acceptable, especially considering the age of the source material. It is a marked improvement over the 1991 six-disc Chopin collection, which I also own. I am however, very curious to hear the Biddulph company's releases of Cortot material, after reading the reviewer's comments. I have compared the sound of this Cortot set to that of the Arthur Rubinstein Chopin Nocturnes, etc., from the 1920's and 1930's, and the Rubinstein sound is clearly superior. Yes, the reviewer who criticizes the sound remastering here on the Cortot set does have a point.
This is Alfred Cortot, one of the greatest pianists of all time. His legacy deserves the best possible remastering.
I would like to single out and make special mention of Cortot's recordings of Schumann's 'Des Abends', and Chopin's Prelude in C sharp minor, op. 45, from 1937 and 1947 respectively, and included in this box set. These are so exquisitely rendered, so entrancing, as to provide more than ample evidence that Cortot's artistry was truly one of a kind. Highly recommended.
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on 19 August 2016
Made a great present... but there again the recipient is a fanatical pianist.
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on 7 October 2013
A god among pianists - should be compulsory listening for every modern professional.

Cortot shows up our mechanical age, where technical perfection elbows out musicality.
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