> The Casals Festivals. Perpignan 1951. Volume III [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Oct 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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The Casals Festivals. Perpignan 1951. Volume III
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Quartet in F Major for Oboe and Strings K370 (1781)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Trio No 2 in G Major, Op 1 No 2 (1795)
Piano Trio No 4 in B Flat Major, Op 11
Piano Trio No 6 in E Flat Major, Op 70 No 2 (1808)
Piano Trio No 7 in B Flat Major Op 97 Archduke (1814)
Marcel Tabuteau, oboe
Isaac Stern, violin
William Primrose, viola
Paul Tortelier, cello
Above in the Mozart Oboe Quartet, otherwise;
Eugene Istomin, piano
Alexander Schneider, violin
Pablo Casals, cello
Recorded in the Palace of Kings of Majorca during the Perpignan Festival, July 1951
PEARL GEMS 0174 [2 CDs 149’24]

The Prades Festival performances given by Casals and his extensive circle have rather overshadowed the series of concerts given at the Perpignan Festival in July 1951. It was Alexander – Sasha – Schneider of the Budapest Quartet who encouraged the initially reluctant cellist to give a series of Summer Festivals in Prades and Perpignan, Casals living in exile from Franco’s Spain. By degrees – cajoling, present-giving and general insinuation – and the arrival of a donated Pleyel Grand and informal visits from leading musicians the 1950 Bach Festival was organised and led to the establishment of those celebrated subsequent Festivals enshrined on disc, of which this is Volume III in Pearl’s edition.

It’s wonderful, of course, to have these performances available in a comprehensive and cogent set well transferred from the early LPs and with notes by Dr Martin Leigh. No one could deny that Casals’ presence is one of constant illumination but equally he was seventy-five at the time and well past his best when the fruits of Schneider’s labours bore fruit.

Mozart’s Oboe Quartet – the only performance sans Casals – opens this double CD set. A stellar line up of international, predominantly American-based instrumentalists took part; French oboist Marcel Tabuteau, American violinist Isaac Stern, British violist William Primrose and French cellist Paul Tortelier (whose name is consistently misspelled in Pearl’s documentation). Stern and Primrose collaborated with Casals in a comatose performance of the Sinfonia Concertante but here, unhampered by Casals’ ponderousness they conjoin in a likeable and fluid reading of the Quartet. Stern could be a vindictive colleague and Primrose a hawk-eyed one but with Tortelier a most sympathetic emollient they give the gracious and elegant oboist judiciously weighted support and quite dissimilar, tonally and expressively, from a contemporary such as Goossens.

The bulk of the performances however are given over to Beethoven. The G Major trio is distended to thirty-eight minutes in length. Gruff accents predominate, lines are fragmented, phrasing is only intermittently convincing. In the Largo Istomin takes – or is encouraged to take (one tends to feel him holding back his natural tempo) - a rather ponderous approach with the result that he sounds rather lumpy. The B Flat Major is, in its tough and unvarnished way not unattractive. Casals’ famous groans are extremely audible here but there is some delightful and elfin playing from the trio in the Adagio in particular. The Op 70 Trio, E Flat Major, features some dramatic instrumental exchanges. Istomin’s fluency is a constantly attractive focus here and they certainly mine the Allegretto for all its worth – with an almost choreographic dynamism, rocking and striding with Schneider’s sometimes astringent tone cutting through the buzz of Casals’ cello. The heavy rhythm is certainly implicit here if a little wanting in subtlety. But admirable are the softened dynamics in the third movement Allegro ma non troppo that is full of a sense of almost quizzical stasis, suffused with genuine intensity. The finale rather lets down the performance. Casals’ intonational problems here are oppressive and Schneider, never perhaps the most beautiful of stylists, receives perhaps less than helpful recording balance.

The masterpiece of the Trios is of course the Archduke. This one clocks in at 43 minutes, a remarkable 10 minutes slower than the Cortot- Thibaud-Casals 78 traversal of 1928, albeit in 1951 they do play the exposition repeat in the first movement. If you admire, say, Gilels-Kogan-Rostropovich you will possibly be nonplussed by the Istomin-Schneider-Casals team. The weighty introduction is lavished with some initially smeary sentimental phrasing. Casals is again gruff and Schneider hardly beyond technical reproach. The pizzicato episode is one of almost overwhelming power and imagination however in a movement, objectively at least, far too slow. I can’t say it convinced me as an example of structural integrity but some sacrifices need to be made for Casals’ intense involvement - though I have to say that the 1928 recording was equally flawed as a performance and, on record at least, Casals never got the Archduke right. In the Scherzo the trio navigate the winding patterns that move through it and vest the music with what I can best call a mock-heroic portentousness. The slow movement though is very slow – fourteen minutes - and at this tempo relation of thematic material becomes tangential and forced. Intense concentration by Casals leads to anticipatory groaning from him but his intonation takes a corresponding battering. The two string players make very theatrical attacks and theirs was not an ensemble I especially relish – with Thibaud, the resultant tonal ambiguities were, miraculously, a force for creative good – but here it’s far too sketchy and disparate. I’m sure Istomin, fluent if not exceptionally creative, again holds and reins back his natural instinct for a quicker tempo as the movement drags forlornly to its close. The finale is a hobble-toed and reasonably attractive but the vices that afflict the Trio emerge at the close where the ending is nowhere near as overwhelming and vital as it should be.

There were a remarkable gathering of performers, recorded in the courtyard of the Palace of Kings of Majorca – and originally released on Columbia ML 4554, 4559, 4561 and 4562. The outdoor recording location meant quality was rather less than optimum and ensemble less than perfect. And though I have been hard on the performances this is only a subjective reaction; much here is noble, lofty, cherishable and of lasting artistic validity.

Jonathan Woolf

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