FRANCK:  Symphonic Variations (Alfred Cortot/London Philharmonic Orch/Landon Ronald, rec. Oct. 13, 1934); SAINT-SAËNS:  Piano Concerto No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 44 (Cortot/"Orch"/Charles Munch, rec. July 9, 1935); Etude in the Form of a Waltz (rec. May 1931); RAVEL:  Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (Cortot/Paris Conservatory Orch/Charles Munch, rec. May 12, 1939).
NAXOS 8.110613 (B) (ADD) TT:  59:38

This is a worthy companion to Naxos' recent issue of Cortot's  recordings of Chopin's Concerto No. 2 and Schumann's concerto (see review), completing their survey of Cortot's complete concerto recordings (with the exception of his 1927 recording of Symphonic Variations). 

These performances are extraordinary. Cortot produced a sound that belied his small presence (he was only 5 ft. tall). The somewhat erratic pianist had technique to burn and, at his best, even though on occasion he had memory lapses, was one of the top pianists of the century. Symphonic Variations was of particular interest to him.  Louis DiÈmer was Cortot's principal piano teacher; Franck dedicated the work to him and it was he who played the premiere May 1, 1886 with the composer conducting. Cortot referred to the music as "the work of Franck's that I have played the most, and of which I had the pleasure of being at least a loving interpreter -- if I had no other merit -- in nearly every city in the old and the new worlds."  Naxos' fine CD notes by Norman Pellegrini give Cortot's detailed comments on all aspects of interpreting the score.

Saint-Saëns' Fourth is the most impressive of the composer's five, surely of more substance than the popular light-weight Second. Cortot also is quoted regarding regarding interpretation of this concerto stating that the opening of the second movement should be played "with a clattering tone," which perhaps justifies his overly brisk -- but exciting -- playing.  Munch's accompaniment (with the Paris Conservatory Orchestra according to the Pearl reissue {9491} although The World's Encyclopedia of Recorded Music doesn't identify the orchestra), is outstanding.  Just before stereo, Munch recorded the same concerto in 1954 with the Boston Symphony and Alexander Brailowsky as a brittle soloist (briefly available on CD, RCA 68165). In 1961 Columbia recorded -- in splendid stereo --  a superb performance with Robert Casadesus, Leonard Bernstein and the NYP.  Cortot's recording of Ravel's Left Hand Concerto was done in 1939, ten years after it was written, and seems a rather odd choice for a recording by Cortot who had made a two hand arrangement (which was not well received) -- it is mildly suggested that perhaps in the recording Cortot used more than his left hand -- it is, indeed, a  virtuoso performance.

The brief filler, Saint-Saëns' virtuoso Waltz/Etude, is one of the marvels of recorded piano music.  In his biography of Vladimir Horowitz, Glenn Plaskin states that the Russian pianist studied briefly with Cortot. However, Cortot believed that Horowitz wanted the association just so he could find out how Cortot played the Saint-Saëns showpiece.  Years later Cortot declared, "I never told him how it was done!"

Mark Obert-Thorn's transfers are outstanding.  Rather strident strings in the Franck doubtless are because of the original recording. This, along with the previous Cortot reissue, is indispensable for piano collectors -- and at bargain price!

R.E.B. (Jan. 2001)