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Forgotten Pianists: Alfred Cortot

Alfred Cortot

Alfred Cortot

Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot (1877¬-1962) began his piano study at the Paris Conservatoire at age 9, taking the premier prix in 1896. He started his concert career in 1897. His love for the music of Wagner led him to Bayreuth, where he was first the choral coach and then assistant conductor under Felix Mottl and Hans Richter. His work at Bayreuth led him to introduce Wagner to French audiences through his Société des Festivals Lyriques, which he founded in 1902. In May 1902, through the Société, he conducted the Paris première of Götterdämmerung.

Cortot’s activities not only as a pianist and conductor but also as a music editor meant that his editions of works by Chopin, Schumann, and Debussy were not only musically solid but also technically correct, his works being noted for their detailed commentaries on technical matters and the question of interpretation.

He formed a piano trio with Jacques Thibaud on violin and Pablo Casals on cello in 1905 and this became the leading piano trio of the early 20th century. Their recordings of Classical composers such as Haydn and Romantic composers such as Brahms set a new standard.

Haydn: Keyboard Trio No. 25 in G Major, Hob.XV:25, “Gypsy Rondo: III. Rondo all’Ongarese: Presto (Alfred Cortot, piano; Jacques Thibaud, violin; Pablo Casals, cello)
He made the first recording of Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, which became legendary and prompted other pianists, such as Vladimir Horowitz, to approach him for his ‘secret.’ He refused to divulge his methods.

Liszt: Piano Sonata in B Minor, S178/R21 (Alfred Cortot, piano)
In 1919, Cortot established his own music school, the École Normale de Musique de Paris. His courses in music interpretation set the new standard for musicians and appreciably changed the 20th century’s approach to music. He was credited with a ‘poetic’ insight into the Romantic period, such as in his recordings of Chopin’s Preludes.
Chopin: 24 Preludes, Op. 28: 24 Preludes, Op. 28: No. 15 in D-Flat Major, “Raindrop” (Alfred Cortot, piano)

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