Alfred Cortot was not only one of the great pianists of the 20th century but also a great pedagogue, who counted among his students among other luminaries, Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz’s two Russian teachers, Sergei Tarnowsky and Felix Blumenfeld, are generally credited with forming Horowitz’s technique and sound (more so Blumenfeld but it was Tarnowsky who worked with Horowitz crafting his unforgettable performance of Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto bar by bar), but if you listen to recordings of Cortot (Weber’s Sonata in A flat major for instance), it is eerie how many aspects of Horowitz’s sound and phrasing you hear echoed in the playing of Cortot (I say ‘echoed’ but actually Cortot came first!).
The following interview with Magda Tagliaferro provides a gentle introduction to Cortot’s technical approach. Some of her technical ‘gems’ have been highlighted in italics or bold italics, and it is interesting to note how they resonate with the teaching of Phil Cohen a pianistic ‘grandson’ of Cortot who, along with many of Canada’s finest pianists (Andre Laplante, Ronald Turini, Janina Fialkowska, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Louis Lortie, Marc Durand), studied with Yvonne Hubert who had studied with Cortot at the Ecole Normale in Paris before coming to Montreal to establish her pianistic dynasty.
Carola Grindea Interviews Magda Taglioferro
My 'Courses on Interpretation' which I hold at regular intervals, bring together many young pianists eager to learn 'my technique' and, so to speak, from the 'horse's mouth', how to play the great works of the French composers. I call these classes Les Couleurs dans I'Harmonie — not easy to translate into English I am afraid. The nearest I can think would be 'The Colours in Harmony'. I do not treat these classes as conventional piano lessons; that is why I insist on this title. I am trying to stimulate young pianists to learn to listen intently to the sounds they produce, to experiment with searching the immense possibilities which the instrument offers, but everything is done through the music, through the musical phrases. In this way, they may develop a sensitive 'inner hearing', which in turn helps them to realize a richer palette of pianistic tones. Usually, my courses have specific themes; the students must prepare certain works which are then analysed in detail, a sort of 'History of Piano Repertoire'. But, in trying to 'teach' the interpretation, I insist on the 'musical contour', the design of each phrase. Just as in my own playing, I insist that the pianist should learn to hear in the mind, to follow in his imagination the phrase as it starts and moves along from note to note, listening intensely to the intervals of the design. If a phrase sings in the imagination, it will be played legato, or with the articulation demanded by its character. At the same time, while the phrase is designed in the mind, the arm will also design it, and there is total coordination between the musical thought and the movement, bringing the contour to its end at the right moment.
I began to play the piano when I was perhaps three or four years old. My father, a fine pianist himself, and a very good teacher, realised that I had great ability. He used to say that I was a 'born pianist', and he devoted at least two hours to practice with me every day. I do not remember much about the teaching; all I know is that I greatly enjoyed playing, learning many pieces, performing them, and he must have been patient and tolerant, yet stern enough to see that my practising was consistent and no time was wasted. In Brazil, at that time, music was not greatly developed, and the public was not yet educated enough to go to concerts to listen to music. These were more like social gatherings for the upper class. When I was 13, my father decided that my talent deserved to be further developed, so he took me to Paris to play to the young pianist who was making a great name at the time, Alfred Cortot. We were very thrilled when Cortot pronounced his judgement. He accepted me immediately in his class at the Paris Conservatoire and by the end of the year, I got my very coveted Premier Prix (the highest exam for performers) before my fourteenth birthday. But my studies with Cortot did not end then; in fact, I studied with him, and we remained friends throughout his life. I owe to him a great deal of my knowledge of the instrument and its possibilities, an essential foundation for any pianist, but most of all, the continuous search for more and more beautiful sounds, the richness of tone colours as well as the fine conception of the masterpieces of piano literature. At the time when I began studying with him he was busy trying to work out his 'Rational Principles of Piano Technique' which have become the Bible of so many pianists all over the world.
I must add that, at our lessons, he was so interested in studying the great piano works with me that he did not expect me to go through all his exercises. Not only that he thought that my technique was serving me well enough, but he realised that it was enough to show me a certain movement of the arm or fingers to express certain musical ideas, that I could immediately do it, not by just copying him, but simply because I could hear the music in my head.
I think I was also trying very hard to imitate him, as everything he did had such exquisite beauty and even the most dramatic chords and passages had ample sonorities, always velvety. Needless to add that, for me, as for all his students, Cortot was the ideal pianist and artist. In turn, I have been trying to instil in my own students that continuous search for greater and greater beauty of sounds, always inspired by the music one plays.
Living in Paris at that time was a unique privilege for a young pianist, eager to study and be part of the musical life which offered a variety of trends and currents created by a group of young composers who brought French music to most unexpected heights. Faure, his student Ravel, Satie, then Debussy, and all the young artists in their group performing their freshly produced compositions in public concerts or in salons, accepted me and encouraged me to join in. I played piano duets with Faure and I gave many first performances of the new works of these important composers. I had also the opportunity to meet George Enescu, that phenomenal musician, who took me as his pianist on several tours. Playing his sonatas for violin and piano with him was an unforgettable musical experience, and I cannot express my gratitude enough for having been able to develop as a pianist and artist during those most interesting and important years in Paris.
My repertoire is, obviously, very large. I have studied most of the works for piano by composers of various periods and styles, and it is so difficult for me to say which I like best. I think I love the ones I play at the time, but, as I have said before, I have an immense capacity to love, especially music and there is so much great music by many different composers. Of course, French music, like Spanish, is so much part of me and my development. Yet, I have great affinity with the Romantic composers, and I find Schumann's rhythmical structure very suited to my South American temperament, but it is the 'Romantic' Schuman which appeals to me so much. And, if I may say without false modesty, I think that my interpretation of Chopin's music is nearest to the 'truth', and sometimes I wonder what Chopin would say if he could return to this world and hear me. I just hope that he would say: 'Yes, this is it!' My great ambition is to come back to London and give a recital of Chopin's music only. I love the English audiences, they are so enthusiastic and so responsive. And they seem to love my playing which gives me enormous satisfaction: this makes me feel good. At my last Wigmore Hall Recital I played the monumental Schumann Sonata Op. 11 in F Sharp Minor and, although there is material for four major works and it lasts nearly fortyfive minutes, I could feel a profound silence in the hall, the kind of silence which one can expect when the listeners are at one with the performer.
Although I still play a great deal not only in France, but also in the United States, England, and in other countries, I have always been involved with working with young pianists, and I think that there are many young pianists who are now performing and also teaching 'my technique'. It is true that, as my father mentioned when I was at the beginners stage, I was what is known as 'a natural', born to play to piano. I developed a virtuoso technique at any early age, but when I launched as a performer I began to search for new ideas, first trying analyse my playing in great detail, and then studying the way other artists played. I believe that it is this perpetual curiosity which has played such an important part in my life. I became very interested in the use of 'relaxation' in piano playing, and I think that this has brought a very valuable development for us pianists, and, in fact, for all performers.
I developed a technique based on relaxation, not a flabby playing, but one which allows total freedom of movements of arms, hands, fingers.
The body, the pianist's posture, all must be an integral part performance, and the pianist must be aware of this complete freedom of movements. I make use of my arm, of the hand, constantly, as my playing is not at the surface of the keys, but has depth. The secret of beautiful piano technique lies in the fact that one must practice slowly, carefully, but, in performance, one must forget everything and just allow the music to flow.
I am still a believer in using finger articulation to develop agility, and strong fingers to support the arm weight without collapsing. The basis of my technique is what I call 'the arcade' of the hand; the bridge formed by the bolted hand and the finger knuckles, the point of resistance when the arm weight is transferred to the keys. The movements of my arms are in response to the musical phrase.
I did say earlier that I teach and I insist on the importance of 'hearing' the design of a musical phrase in the mind, and the pianist's arm designs that same phrase at the same time. Not exaggerated gestures, but supple and elegant, as those of a racehorse. I think that pianists should watch horses galloping and learn from their exquisite movements how to use their arms and, particularly, how to use their elbows, freely, without any hindrance. The elbows must be allowed to bend or stretch when necessary, but these are directed towards the keyboard, not rotating outwardly as if swimming.
‘The Touch'? Le touche? – well, this is a very personal matter. Yes, the sensation of touch is first conceived in the imagination: one must hear the sound, and the gesture will be created in response. But, it is not the intellect, it is the feeling of the artist who will decide, ultimately, how to press the keys. Most teachers and great pedagogues have talked about their way of teaching various touches - pianists have been concerned with these complex problems since the piano was invented. I also try to teach my students how to use the fingers, hands, arms, how to press the keys in order to obtain certain tones. Yet, ultimately, each pianist will produce 'his' tone. I think it is the intimacy between the player, the instrument, and the music which creates a particular tone. Perhaps this may be a too simple explanation of the mystery of a very beautiful 'touch' which places an artist in a very special category. It was always said about Cortot's tone that it had such an extraordinary quality that one could recognise it from among a hundred pianists, and this is what I mean by the touch being a 'very personal matter'.
There is a French saying: 'Le style c'est 1'homme - I can say, 'the pianist is his tone.'
EPTA Piano Journal vol 5 no 14 1984
Source: Great Pianists and Pedagogues in Conversation with Carola Grindea (London, 2007), p. 74-77. Copyright © 2007 Carola Grindea
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