by Thomas Manshardt

Reviewed by Nigel Nettheim
(© 2000)

[This article first appeared in Key Vive, No. 76, September 1994, pp. 10-12.
It may not be reproduced without permission.
To enquire about Key Vive and the Australian Society for Keyboard Music, send mail to 6A/8-12 Sutherland Road, Chatswood, NSW 2067, Australia.]

The Frenchman Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) was undoubtedly one of the great expressive pianists. His recordings of the Chopin Etudes and of piano trios with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals are legendary, and his pupils included Gina Bachauer, Clara Haskil, Dinu Lipatti, Ruth Slenczynska and the author of the book now reviewed.

To put into print ideas about piano playing is difficult, for readers are likely to understand the message in their own way, and thus to misunderstand it. Most likely to succeed are books written by the person who held the ideas, as for instance Josef Hofmann, Josef Lhevinne, Heinrich Neuhaus and Karl Leimer. In other cases the message is passed on at second hand, as for instance by Konrad Wolff ("The Teaching of Artur Schnabel") and as now by Thomas Manshardt; in these cases the reader may be more sceptical, and Manshardt disarms us in his introduction: "What follows does not pretend to represent Cortot's thought: it is rather Cortot's thought as understood by Thomas Manshardt..."

Chapter 2, "Understanding Cortot", includes the following interesting ideas:

"For pianists he did not know well he required written notices as to what feelings they intended to create in the works they brought for his hearing" (p.21).

"Talent for playing the piano, he believed, was talent for evoking a wide variety of beautiful sounds and tonal textures from the instrument: one does not speak to one's love in the same voice that one orders five kilos of potatoes" (p.27).

Over half the book is concerned with piano technique. The basic idea is to choose the method of playing for emotional fluency rather than for literal accuracy. Courage, rather than care, is required. I fear the descriptions of techniques such as "press-lift" and "twist" are not detailed enough to prevent misunderstandings; nevertheless the reader is likely to benefit from many observations including the following on pedalling:

"Most playing of melodies should be done with the una corda [left] pedal down so that the hammers strike only two of the three strings for each note in the register where there are three strings per note. The sympathetic vibration of the unstruck string gives an astonishing penetrating and carrying quality to the tone" (p.86). It seems doubtful whether this is an acoustically defensible explanation; in any case, in many pianos nowadays the una corda pedal strikes all three strings, though with a softer part of the hammer.

"Another use of the una corda pedal occurs in the plotting of long crescendos. The basic plan is as follows: with the una corda pedal engaged, the melodic voice should increase in volume. When no further crescendo is possible then the inner voices should expand, followed by the bass. When no further unforced crescendo is possible the una corda pedal can be raised giving the effect of almost doubling the volume" (p.87).

"In performance of running passages the pedal is in the position where it just barely begins to raise the dampers off the strings, the quarter-pedal. This quarter-pedalling prevents scale passages from sounding dry and colourless..." (p.88).

Cortot considered that "pedalling by harmonic packets" was of no artistic value (p.89), a view shared by Tessa Birnie - see the May {1994} Key Vive p.13.

Also valuable is Chapter 4, "Phrasing":

"Conventional phrase markings ... often make music easier to read but they are usually in the wrong places due to, Cortot believed, conventional mannerisms in printers of music" (pp.117-118).

Cortot did not believe in the widespread idea that rubato consists in paying back what has been borrowed: "Rubato does not mean 'borrowed'. Theft is implied and it is a very poor thief indeed who promptly returns everything" (p.129). This view is in direct contradiction to that of Heinrich Neuhaus, "The Art of Piano Playing", Barrie & Jenkins, 1973, p.31: "... rubare is the Italian for stealing and if you steal time without returning it soon after, you are a thief; if you first accelerate the tempo, you must subsequently slow down; remain an honest man [or woman]: restore balance and harmony." The really surprising point to this comparison comes on Neuhaus's following page: "But how beautiful the real rubato of a great artist! ... Remember Rachmaninov, Cortot and some of the others." So we find that Neuhaus admired Cortot's rubato and advocated "paying back", yet Cortot himself did not believe in "paying back"! Such contradictions are stimulating; they show that little can be said categorically in music. In this case recent methods of measuring timing in recorded performances might be able to resolve the matter.

A CD of a live recital by Manshardt is published simultaneously. The playing of Mozart's G-major Sonata K283 is the most imaginative Mozart I've ever heard. Even if some find it goes too far - I did not - it will be a good antidote to the routine "examination" performances of Mozart often heard. Although I found three of Liszt's Légendes surprisingly heavy-handed, the Chopin B-minor sonata is full of conviction especially in melodic playing. One might well agree with the reviewer who noted with approval that Manshardt "has somehow bypassed the whole of the 20th century".

I recommend both book and CD for all piano enthusiasts.

Aspects of Cortot (pp.xii+149) is available from Appian Publications and Recordings, PO Box 1, Wark, Hexham, Northumberland, NE48 3EW, England. Price £12 (book), £12 (CD), £22 (both). When writing, ask for their full catalogue.

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