Listening to Cortot

22nd February 2010 | Concerts, Daily Life, Inspirations | 1 comment



I’m practising Schumann’s wonderful set of piano pieces, Davidsbündlertänze, for a concert later this year. As usual, progress is unpredictable. Sometimes things move on, sometimes not. Feeling short of inspiration one day this week, I sat down to listen to a historic 1937 recording by Alfred Cortot, renowned for his interpretations of Schumann and Chopin.

It had a curious effect. Cortot’s impulsiveness and spontaneity is often inspiring, but he was clearly living at a time when accuracy was not as highly prized as it is now. It’s astonishing to hear how many wrong notes he plays, sometimes whole fistfuls of them when the going gets tough. I found it strangely liberating. Nobody today would willingly leave the recording studio with so many errors faithfully captured on disc, but after I’d got over my surprise, Cortot’s performance reminded me what was important. It conveyed such focus on the line and spirit of the music that his wrong notes seemed (almost) irrelevant. Next time I sat down at the piano, I felt quite light-hearted, and found it easier to think of the big picture.

1 Comment

  1. David

    I love Cortot’s recordings and almost always find them more moving and exciting than the airbrushed modern recordings.

    But I wonder if the wrong notes are ‘(almost) irrelevant’. Isn’t it exactly because Cortot (and his producers) valued the spirit of the music higher than note accuracy that the recordings are so musically transcendent? Would the impulsiveness and spontaneity be possible if he were anxious about the notes?

    I wonder if the modern obessesion with wrong notes means that musicians now chose ways of playing (tempi, fingerings, phrasings, dynamics) that are safer in terms of note accuracy but musically less interesting?


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