Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) was in my opinion the greatest pianist in recorded history. If I had to give one reason – and there are many – it would be the spontaneity of his playing. Above all you hear it in Chopin. His twists of rubato and infinitely subtle shading of phrases sound as if they’ve just occurred to him.
There’s no better demonstration of that art than the first few minutes of his 1935 Chopin Second Piano Concerto with an uncredited orchestra (probably the LSO) and John Barbirolli. Not only is Cortot on top form, but the orchestra plays a delicious but naughty trick – at one point the violins decorate the melody with a little leap that isn’t in the score. Once heard, never forgotten.
Today brings great news for everyone who loves that recording. This morning, Pristine Classical – the master restorers about whom I’ve written here and with whom The Spectator has a subscription offer – releases it in better sound than I thought possible. The richness of the orchestral playing in particular helps you forget that it is 80 years old. (The same is true of Cortot’s Saint-Saëns Fourth Piano Concerto, also released today.)
Yet some music lovers prefer not to listen to Cortot – not on account of his performances (whose wrong notes divide opinion) but because the Swiss-born pianist shamefully collaborated with the Vichy regime. Indeed, he was Pétain’s High Commissioner of the Fine Arts. And he visited Germany to play for Nazi-sponsored concerts.
It’s a complicated story, which you can read on the Music and the Holocaust website. Cortot had a Jewish wife from whom he was separated and did make some attempt to protect Jewish musicians; but his sins outweigh his good deeds – whereas the opposite is true of Wilhelm Fürtwangler, who conducted for Hitler but whose contempt for the Nazis put him in danger.
For Cortot I’d invoke the Wagner defence: the man’s appalling behaviour need not interfere with our appreciation of his art. Music lovers must come to their own conclusions. But first, I urge you, listen to him.