THEY’RE HISTORIC, AND WITHOUT A TRACE of the historically informed. A cornucopia of Romantic-era chamber classics featuring many of the 20th-century’s greatest musicians in combinations made impossible at the time of recording by record company contact exclusivity.
Casals and company can’t be accused of playing it safe in the performances on this 13-disc set, performances culled from Prades Festival concerts between 1953 and 1960. Although about half of the material has appeared on earlier CD and LP issues, the rest is previously unreleased – and none of it, as far as I’ve been able to determine, duplicates any of the material released on LP by Columbia in the 1960s, despite an overlap of repertory and artists.
Founded in 1950, the annual summer festival (in what was then Casals’ home town) was conceived to honor the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death, although it really was the successful effort by several of Casals’ musical associates to coax him out of a long musical exile. Casals not only agreed to participate but also opened six of the programs with a Bach Cello Suite.
Only one of the suites – from a 1953 recording – appears in the present set, but the repertory also includes Brahms’ three piano trios as well as the less-known but still compelling three by Schumann, the five cello sonatas by Beethoven, several Beethoven piano trios, three quartets for assorted instruments by Mozart, and a sublime 1953 performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major – not the Sony-released version with Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider, and others, but an ensemble comprising violinists Jacob Krachmalnick and Orrea Pernel, violist Karen Tuttle, and cellists Madeline Foley and Casals.
Another work that duplicates Columbia-issued repertory is Schumann’s Piano Quintet No. 2 in E-flat major, but instead of Myra Hess, Isaac Stern, and so forth, the artists are Rudolf Serkin and the Végh Quartet, weaving a stunning flow of majesty and mystery throughout this performance-dependent piece.
Any William Kapell recording is worth examining, although the two selections in this set showcase his more subdued chamber-partner side. An energetic 1953 performance of Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 2 also includes Arthur Grumiaux, Milton Thomas, and Paul Tortelier, although it’s mislabeled as a piano trio with the liner notes trying to justify the fourth musician by suggesting that Tortelier was on hand to contribute a bass line! Which is all the more amusing in that a 1956 performance of the same piece opens the first CD.
Kappell and Grumiaux also join forces in Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 1, one of the least of his ten such sonatas but given renewed credence by a stirring performance. The trio of Serkin, Casals, and violinist Szymon Goldberg brings luster to Beethoven’s Piano Trios Nos. 4 and 5, both recorded in June 1954.
The only vocal work in this set is also the only orchestral work, and, occupying seven minutes at the tail end of a short disc, seems more like filler than forethought. However, because it's Victoria de los Angeles singing Mozart (“Zeffiretti lusingheri” from Idomeneo), it makes you long for more from that 1959 concert.
Not every performance in this set has that polish. Huff all you want about the appropriateness of playing Bach’s sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord on cello and piano, but Casals made some brilliant recordings in the latter instrumentation. His 1956 performance here of the Sonata No. 1 in G Major, with pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, stumbles in the opening movement and that casts a dullness over the work as a whole.
And, although Casals’ pairing with pianist Alfred Cortot for a 1958 performance of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3 recalls a legendary association going back to 1905, it’s a tentative reading full of missteps leading to a full-blown train wreck in the finale. Both men were in their 80s at the time, but Cortot didn’t endure as well as Casals.
With a collection this large, however, any disappointment is quickly followed by a thrill. Marcel Tabuteau joins Pernel, Tuttle, and Tortelier for a definitive performance of Mozart’s Oboe Quartet; pianist Karl Engel, violinist Sándor Végh, and Casals play Mendelssohn’s Op. 49 trio with vigor and panache that places the 84-year-old cellist on equal footing with the comparative striplings beside him.
Although it’s all familiar repertory in these recordings, the performances – lush, impassioned – present an alternate universe of interpretive style. It’s a must-have set for chamber music lovers, who will be pleased and provoked by it, but never bored.
Casals Festivals at Prades
Music and Arts
J.S. Bach: Sonata for Cello and Piano in G major, BWV 1027; Suite No. 3 in C major, BWV 1009; The Well Tempered Clavier, Book II: four selections
Beethoven: Seven Variations on "Bei Männern, welche liebe” from Mozart’s Magic Flute, for cello and piano; Cello Sonata No. 1 in F major, Op. 5 No. 1; Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2; Cello Sonata No. 3 in A major, Op. 69; Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102 No. 1; Cello Sonata No. 5 in D major, Op. 102 No. 2; Horn Sonata in F major, Op 17 (arr. cello and piano); Violin Sonata No. 1 in D major, Op. 12 No. 1; Violin Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op 30 No. 1; Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 1 No. 3; Piano Trio No. 4 in D major, Op. 70, No. 1; Piano Trio No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 70 No. 2; Piano Trio No. 9 in G major, "Kakadu," Op. 121a
Brahms: Piano Trio No. 1 in B major, Op. 8; Piano Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87; Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101; Trio in A minor for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 114
Mendelssohn: Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 49
Mozart: Oboe Quartet in F major, K. 370; Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat major, K. 493; Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581; “Zeffiretti lusingheri” from Idomeneo, K 366
Schubert: String Quintet in C major, Op. 163
Schumann: Adagio and Allegro in A-flat major, Op. 70; String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41 No. 1; Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44; Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63; Piano Trio No. 2 in F major, Op. 80; Piano Trio No. 3 in G minor, Op. 110
Pablo Casals (cello, conductor); Yehudi Menuhin, Joseph Szigeti, Arthur Grumiaux, Szymon Goldberg (violin); Paul Tortelier (cello); Alfred Cortot, Rudolf Serkin, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, William Kapell, Clifford Curzon, Eugene Istomin (piano); Victoria de los Angeles (soprano); Végh Quartet; Collegium Musicum
– andante.com, August 2002