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October 23, 2009

Blast from the past: Alfred Cortot, pianistic poet

Eearlier this week, I attended a preview of the Baltimore Museum of Art's extraordinary exhibit, "Matisse as Printmaker," which opens Sunday. Among the 150 or so prints, all of them worth a long look, are two portraits of Alfred Cortot, the Franco-Swiss pianist with an intensely poetic nature. Seeing that distinctive face, which Matisse captured perfectly in just a few lines, gave me the idea that Cortot should be this week's blast form the past.

This guy had something at once spiritual and aristocratic, a style of playing quite unlike anything else we have recorded evidence of, a certain inner radiance that still comes through even the scratchiest sound.

It's typical for people these days to speak more about Cortot's missed notes than the richness of his legancy, since we live in a digitally manipulated age that seems to have removed so much of the human element from music-making. So Cortot didn't have a flawless technique. To borrow Oscar Wilde's phrase from "The Importance of Being Earnest," the pianist didn't play accurately -- anyone can play accurately -- but he played with wonderful expression.

Today, musicians who depart too much from, or stretch out, or rush the notes of a score are

branded self-indulgent (and many of them really are self-indulgent). But Cortot demonstrated that it is possible to be very personal about music, yet totally respectful of its character; to make highly individualistic choices about phrasing, tempo, and dynamics, yet stay fully within the spirit.

To me, Cortot remains a benchmark of keyboard artistry. And, as you'll see in the clip of him explaining a dreamy Schumann piece as he plays, Cortot was a fabulous character, too.

Posted by Tim Smith at 7:17 AM | | Comments (2)


Cortot clearly demonstrates the difference between a human touch and the razor-sharp perfection of a machine/computer. Being human myself (;^), I _vastly_ prefer the Cortots of the world, because I'm perfectly in tune with his poeticism. Technical flaws are an easy tripping obstacle in piano playing, and as with so many things, "perfection" (choke-choke, cough-cough) is all relative. I improvise on the piano all the time, and I surrendered any ambitions to be a "recreative" artist long ago, because I'm definitely _not_ precise. (I call my mistakes "turning points," kinda like turning down the wrong street but trying to explore it anyway. %^)

Someone like Cortot finely rides the line between "creative" and "recreative," where he certainly stays true to the intentions of the composer (without straying into any gross vulgarities), but he also imbues his _sound_ with an "instant" inner life, giving the (marvellous) impression of on-the-spot composing. (My preferred method, anyway! Music _is_ meant to be lived...)

Agree Music is a living experience. Each time a piece of music is played it is a new creation. Yes, the notes were written by the composer and do not change but the interpretation of the piece belongs to the player. In addition, the performer and the listener each have a unique experience of the music.
Who cares if a note here or there is not played accurately?!

I second that motion. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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