Alfred Cortot, pianist, teacher, editor and conductor, taught one of my teachers, Roy Shepherd, at the Ecole Normale in Paris.
As a young pianist studying with Roy, I was lent a copy of Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue personally fingered by Cortot, with his large handwriting and iconic French ‘1’s. There are certain moments in Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau and in L’isle joyeuse where Roy told me Cortot said to play it this way. I still do. My lessons were peppered with Cortot stories; my favourite was the one about the girl who had not been practising Cortot’s exercises from his ‘Rational Principles of Piano Technique’, which occasionally he would demand without prior warning in his classes. He threw her book out of the room. I seem to recall that he then threw the girl out after the book, but I may have got that wrong.
I was told to use Cortot’s editions of Chopin; looking at them now, although over-edited, they are remarkable for the meticulous attention to detail, the many exercises for technical difficulties, the awareness of musical construction, and the illuminating comments.
His masterclasses were legendary.
As the bicentenary celebrations for Chopin and Schumann draw to a close, it’s good to remember a pianist who championed their music. Cortot was the first to record the complete Chopin Preludes. And, with 2011 in our minds, he was the first to record Liszt’s B minor Sonata.
Here he is in Liszt’s La Leggierezza: