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.