The Piano Files

Redefining Piano Technique

The recordings of Alfred Cortot provide an opportunity to explore the multifaceted elements of true piano 'technique.'
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Alfred Cortot

After our exploration of the circumstances that led to the creation of one of the all-time great piano recordings, it might be interesting to hear a particular recording that had made a strong impression on a legendary pianist, and which also raises some important perspectives about ‘technique.’

The great French pianist Alfred Cortot, included in our exploration of Chopin’s famous E-flat Major Nocturne, is often dismissed by present-day listeners who claim that his pianistic technique was lacking because some of his recordings have wrong notes. That is a serious misrepresentation of the truth.

Cortot’s dexterity was so astounding that the young Vladimir Horowitz travelled a great distance to Paris, hoping to learn the French master’s fingering for the treacherous Étude en forme de valse of Saint-Saëns after having heard his 1919 recording of the work. Cortot was not satisfied that his dazzling finger work was the reason that the young pianist should want to study with him, and although he would eventually coach Horowitz quite extensively, he claimed that never revealed his sought-after fingering!

Here is the amazing recording that had so impressed Horowitz:

Through the faded sound of that early recording, we can indeed hear stupendous dexterity — and there are many other pianistic marvels in his performance as well. Cortot clearly did have astounding technique, even though he did drop notes in some of his recorded performances, particularly as he aged; this is something that those accustomed to hearing heavily edited recordings are not used to.

This provides an invitation to consider the full breadth of ‘technique,’ as this word tends to be used primarily to describe note-precision. I would postulate, however, that true technique goes beyond such superficial accuracy and involves all that is required to produce a musical performance: tonal quality, dynamic control, the subtlety of the pedal, the balance of primary and secondary voices, and a host of other means whereby music can be brought to life.

If an artist can play all the notes correctly but not sustain a beautiful tone or natural phrasing while doing so, do they really have ‘good technique’? (I would say that they don’t.) Would you say that an actor is skilled because they pronounced all of the words in the script without an error? Does their skill not rest upon their capacity to reveal not only the power of words but also the meaning behind them? Would you say that an actor was not accomplished simply because they fumbled a line or dropped a word in the midst of an impassioned performance? Probably not — and yet we have this attitude with musicians.

Naturally, no one would choose to play wrong notes in order to bring meaning to a performance, but it is also true that such slips can happen in the course of a vivacious reading, and a few generations ago, these occasional flubs were not viewed in quite the same light as they are now. The eminent critic and author Harold C Schonberg in his classic tome The Great Pianists that Cortot’s dropped notes were like scratches on a painting: one should look at the painting and not the flaws on its surface. He also noted that Cortot was also a teacher, administrator, performer, author, editor, and recording artist — with all this on his plate, how much time did he have to practice?

There is no doubt about Cortot’s well-grounded technical capabilities when one merely glances at his book of piano exercises, Principes rationnels de la technique pianistique, or his study editions for great works of Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, and other composers, with ingenious exercises built around their musical content. And in the best of his recordings, we can be thoroughly flabbergasted by his phenomenal full-spectrum pianistic mastery.

By the time he recorded the Saint-Saëns Étude again in 1931, Cortot’s previously iron-clad precision was at times less stable, albeit not too significantly. He still plays brilliantly, even if the performance is perhaps not quite as seamless; however, his gorgeous singing tone is much more appreciable thanks to the better sound in this later recording, which helps us to better appreciate his musical treatment of this virtuosic showpiece:

Here is a great example of Cortot’s exceptional dexterity in full-bodied recorded sound: his 1925 account of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.11, which features dazzling runs and infectious rhythmic buoyancy. Keep in mind, this is a single unedited performance, without any mechanical intervention (unlike modern recordings, which tend to be heavily edited):

Cortot was more expansive an artist than the limited scope of this feature can articulate, and the key point here is to recognize that even if not all of his dozens of hours of recordings demonstrate the highest degree of digital accuracy, it does not mean he was not worth hearing. Quite the reverse: his astounding imagination is always abundantly evident, and that may be the most remarkable aspect of his musical technique, one lacking among many with more dependable fingers.

Additionally, Cortot certainly excelled at far more than just the showpieces we have heard thus far: he was a peerless interpreter of lyrical repertoire, which he played with soaring phrasing, myriad tonal colours, and inimitable timing. This film footage of the aged pianist describing the inner perspective required to breathe life into the closing work of Schumann’s Kinderszenen, while he plays it, reveals that his pianistic and musical toolbox went well beyond the simply striking the keys:

While it can take practice for a listener to appreciate the full range of Cortot’s music-making when they are not used to hearing the occasional wrong note or listening to old recordings, it is definitely worth doing so. When this poet speaks through the piano, a broader canvas of artistry makes itself available, one far beyond the dazzling dexterity that had so impressed the young Horowitz. Alfred Cortot was in every way a true master of the keyboard and of the art of musical interpretation.


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