by Robert Battey
Today the legendary name Pablo Casals evokes homage among musicians old and young, the world over. What is interesting about the great Catalan's career is that had it not been for Alexander Schneider, second violinist of the Budapest Quartet, he would today be an historical footnote. An important footnote, to be sure, but nothing close to the near-deity status he still enjoys among cellists, particularly in this country. Casals played his last professional concert in the U.S. in the 1920's. He was active in the 30's, but did not visit these shores. After the war, he went into self-imposed exile to protest the political situation in Spain.
Thus, in America in 1950, very few non-cellists had heard Casals' name and only a handful of people had ever seen him play. His time in the spotlight appeared to be over. But that year, the bicentennial of Bach's death, Schneider moved heaven and earth to 1) persuade Casals to take part in a Bach festival to be held in his little French village and 2) persuade Columbia Records to sponsor and record concerts there. The resulting publicity (Columbia wanted the records to sell, after all) and the renewed contact great musicians had with Casals sparked a tremendous second career even though he was by then far past his prime. But between chamber music, conducting, and masterclasses, he stayed continuously before the public, his legend growing yearly, until his death in 1973 at age 96.
Casals' "Golden Period" as a recording artist was the decade of 1929-1939 for the HMV label. He had recorded quite a bit already, for both RCA and Columbia, but the repertoire consisted mainly of arrangements, popular songs, and snippets from larger works. When recording technology and public taste had progressed to where there was both the technical ability and market demand for serious, complete works, Casals was more than ready (he was 53 at the time). Under his new HMV (today EMI records) contract, he recorded much of the standard cello repertoire, with top collaborators, in good halls, and in high-quality sound. These recordings are variously available on EMI, Pearl, and Biddulph CD's today.
Principal among them, of course, a set that is on most cellist's "desert island" collections, were the complete Bach Suites. The shadow these incandescent interpretations cast over all who have followed is remarkable, and they have been analyzed too often to require further mention here. But Casals also recorded the complete Beethoven sonatas, the Brahms F major sonata, the Boccherini, Dvorak, and Brahms Double concerti, Kol Nidrei, and a dozen encore pieces, as well as piano trios of Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. Given the stress and difficulty of recording in those days (sessions had to be started and stopped for each 4-minute side of a 78; but within a side there was no splicing, so any audible flaw meant re-doing the entire side), the quality and quantity of this output is remarkable.
The HMV recordings represent the Casals that Fritz Kriesler called "the monarch of the bow," not the groaning, mannered musician that many of us grew up hearing. For many years the post-war Columbia recordings (from the Casals festivals and, in particular, a recital recorded live at the White House during the Kennedy administration) were the only available Casals recordings, outside of the Bach Suites which have remained in print continuously since they were first issued. But those documents of the artist in his dotage are happily superseded by the reissues of the earlier material.
So, to sum up, Biddulph has released a 3-volume set of all of Casals' early acoustical recordings for Columbia. While the playing is wonderful, and the sound quality is tolerable, much of the repertoire makes these discs more of an archival and historical acquisition than an artistic one. For a good, inexpensive portrait of Casals' art during this period I recommend RCA's "Casals Early Recordings," a single disc of charming cello lollipops, exquisitely played. Next came his glory days with HMV, all recordings from which a serious cellist should at least know, if not own. All are now available on EMI or Pearl CD's. The last HMV recording Casals made was the Elgar Concerto, just after the war. His musical vision and personal intensity still burned bright, but, at 69, his cellistic abilities were clearly in decline. His later recordings, available now mainly on Sony CD's, do not present him as he would wish to be remembered.
At his best, Casals played with a clarity of musical vision that swept all before it. It was often not "pretty" cello playing, and the style, while easy to parody, cannot be copied. It was a unique mixture of spontaneity and planning, delivered with an artistic conviction that has simply disappeared today. Listen, for example to his two EMI Boccherini recordings, the A major sonata and the standard Gruetzmacher-arranged Bb concerto. There you will hear a control of color and emotion that commands attention from the first note. His rubato is far freer than what is heard from today's artists, and yet so natural and inevitable-sounding that the music seems to have been composed that way. He plays his own extended cadenza in the finale of the concerto, and it is a tour de force, both as a composition and as a performance. In short, Casals presents true "music making," in every sense, and it is little wonder that such great artists as Bernard Greenhouse, Isaac Stern, and David Soyer still cite him as a dominant influence.
Thanks to the efforts of the historical labels mentioned, all of this essential material is available to us today.
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