The 10 Greatest Pianists of All Time

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6. Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) 

Who was he? A French pianist and professor at the Conservatoire de Paris. He was called a “poet of the piano” for his mastery of the lyrical works of Chopin, Schumann and Debussy, producing landmark recordings, and meticulous editions, of their music.

What makes him great? A highly personal, subjective style that favours intuition and feeling over precise technique, resulting in performances of lush, transcendent musicality.

Stephen Hough on Cortot's individuality

“Cortot is sometimes remembered as the pianist who played lots of wrong notes. This is unfair – not just because he had a dazzling finger technique, but because he never allowed striving for accuracy to distract him from the bigger picture. His mistakes can sometimes be heard even in the first notes of pieces, but I find these fallible moments endearing: the pianist is consumed by spiritual inspiration and oblivious of the physical risks involved. Cortot was a great virtuoso, conscious of the power to excite and thrill that Romantic piano music has, but you never feel manipulated in his musical company. You feel that even his most extravagant interpretative choices come from complete inner honesty; he is not sitting in a spotlight forcing you to look at him, but rather holding a torch, leading you forward to enlightenment. 

"I never tire of hearing his recordings, particularly those of Chopin and Schumann from the 1920s and ’30s. His combination of utter interpretative freedom (sometimes with a touch of eccentricity) and penetrating insight into the composer’s wishes is unique, in my view. There are artists who delight listeners with their wild and daring individuality, and there are others who uncover the written score for us with insight and reverence – but there are few who can do both. Cortot had a vision which saw beyond the academic or the theatrical to some wider horizon of creativity from whence the composers themselves might well have drawn inspiration.” 

Also chosen by: Alfred Brendel, Benjamin Grosvenor, Stanislav Ioudenitch…

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The 10 Greatest Pianists of All Time
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