Owen Mortimer

Cambridge Piano Weekend celebrates Cortot

11:42, 12th September 2018

This year’s Cambridge Piano Weekend celebrates the powerful legacy of Alfred Cortot. Bryce Morrison met Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz, a direct descendant of Cortot’s teachings, as she prepares to give masterclasses at the event

Over half a century after his death, Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) is still surrounded in a halo of praise from performers and connoisseurs. For Daniel Barenboim, Cortot ‘discovered the opium in Chopin’, while for Philippe Entremont his playing ‘took wing’, seemingly soaring into the stratosphere. If, according to Liszt, a virtuoso was one who ‘breathed the breath of life’ and ‘conjured scent and blossom’, then Cortot was the ultimate virtuoso. Again, Claude Frank’s response to accusations of Schnabel’s technical inadequacy – ‘Oh, but his playing was so brilliant’ – applies to an even greater extent to Cortot. For Yvonne Lefébure, his wrong notes were ‘the wrong notes of a god’; and there are even those who feel short-changed without them, regarding them as part and parcel of a uniquely vivid personality. Even the Japanese, so often lovers of orderly, note-perfect pianism, fell under his spell, presenting him with an island to be called ‘Cortoshima: hermit in the land of dreams’.

Set against such a nimbus of resonant adulation, my own first serious teacher’s comment, ‘I would like to hear a few right notes in the Chopin Études (they are, after all, “studies”)’, or Cécile Ousset’s scornful, ‘he belonged to the age of the wrong note’, seem niggardly and beside the point. More surprisingly, Rachmaninov wondered why anyone would want to study with a pianist who played so many wrong notes. In retaliation Cortot considered Rachmaninov ‘passé’ (though the Third Concerto featured briefly in his repertoire). Above all, Cortot knew that there were higher goods than discretion; that in the words of William Blake, ‘Prudence is an ugly old maid courted by incapacity’. Like Claudio Arrau he could have claimed, ‘When I play, I am in ecstasy. That is what I live for’. His playing had a narcotic quality that few pianists today would risk or contemplate. Cortot was, arguably, the supreme re-creative genius of all pianists.

This admittedly long and winding road brings me to the Cambridge Piano Weekend 2018, whose theme is ‘Continuing the legacy of Alfred Cortot’. The event takes place this September and includes masterclasses with the Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz. Having studied with Magda Tagliaferro (also Brazilian-born), Ortiz can be considered a ‘grand-pupil’ of Cortot. In the case of Tagliaferro, Cortot’s teaching exerted a lifelong influence: her scintillating brio, range and beauty of expression are unmistakable.

Cristina Ortiz: ‘Respect for the score was central to Cortot’s teaching’ (Photo: Sussie Ahlburg)
Cristina Ortiz: ‘Respect for the score was central to Cortot’s teaching’ (Photo: Sussie Ahlburg)

Ortiz, meanwhile, is currently preparing for a Chopin recital in London as part of the Southbank’s International Piano Series, as well as celebrating her new recording of works by Guarnieri and Nepomuceno, two of her beloved Brazilian composers. I asked her how conscious she is of Cortot’s influence on her playing: ‘Well, I suppose the organisers of the Cambridge Piano Weekend sensed the line of tradition you describe! I grew up with many of Cortot’s recordings and the sense of such a vivid, compulsive personality has remained with me.’

My question to Cortiz about the dangers of studying with an outsized personality certainly struck a chord: ‘Tagliaferro’s way was the only way and during my unforgettable years with her in Paris my one wish was to please her, to play exactly as she prescribed. It has taken me years to escape from such a wonderful but overwhelming presence, to become my own person.’ Other great but dominating pianists who teach come to mind, including Schnabel, who begged to be rescued from his ‘disciples’, Horowitz (for Cortot a pianist more interested in his own charisma than the spirit of a composer) and Brendel. Such overbearing pedagogy has its ‘pluses and minuses’, says Ortiz.

Cortot, in his legendary masterclasses, could be devastatingly critical of his
students. Can this approach ever be justified? ‘I don’t believe in being cruel to students,’ says Ortiz. ‘It’s counter-productive. What I do insist on is respect for the score, something central to Cortot’s teaching; he insisted that all his students brought a full analysis of the work they intended to play for him. There was always a ground plan to Cortot’s seeming spontaneity, making references to his “careless rapture” misleading. Cortot’s technique was very personal and has been lengthily described in Thomas Manshardt’s book Aspects of Cortot. I have to say that many of his ideas hardly suit everyone. Cortot, like Tagliaferro, felt that over-practise could blunt the spirit and soul of a composer. Jeanne Marie-Darre (an arch-enemy of Tagliaferro; my God, how they hated each other!) felt you could never practise enough. So, point-counterpoint. The answer is that practise is an individual matter and your time in the practice room should be enhancing rather than destructive.’

This year’s Cambridge Piano Weekend runs from 14-16 September and Ortiz says she is ‘so looking forward to these classes! There may be times when you feel like saying, “next please”, but you are there to help in any way you can. At the same time you can only do so much in a masterclass; serious teaching is a long-term endeavour. I am ending with a recital of music by Chopin and Schumann (central to Cortot’s vast repertoire) and some of Tagliaferro’s favourite encores; a memory and a tribute to a tradition to which I feel proud to belong.’

For further details about the 2018 Cambridge Piano Weekend visit www.cortotheritage.com/cambridge-piano-weekend

Cristina Ortiz appears in the International Piano Series at London’s Southbank on 18 October. www.southbankcentre.co.uk

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