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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Bach Festival – Prades 1950
The Brandenburg Concertos
No. 1 in F major
No. 2 in F major
No. 3 in G major
No. 4 in G major
No. 5 in D major
No. 6 in B flat minor
Das Musikalische Opfer [The Musical Offering]
Sonata a tre voci in C minor
Ricercare a sei voci
The Prades Festival Orchestra conducted by Pablo Casals (The Brandenburg Concertos) Soloists; Alexander Schneider (violin), Laila Thevet and G Coursier (horns), Marcel Tabuteau, L Storch and John Mack (oboes) M Allard (bassoon) in No. 1; Alexander Schneider (violin), Marcel Mule (saxophone), John Wummer (flute), Marcel Tabuteau (oboe) and Paul Tortelier (cello) in No. 2; Alexander Schneider (violin), John Wummer and Bernard Goldberg (flutes) in No. 4; Eugene Istomin (piano), Joseph Szigeti (violin) and John Wummer (flute) in No. 5
Leopold Mannes (piano) (Das Musikalische Opfer)
Alexander Schneider (violin), John Wummer (flute), Leopold Teraspusky (cello) and Leopold Mannes (piano) (Sonata a tre voci in C minor)
Alexander Schneider and Orrea Pernel (violins), Milton Thomas and Karen Tuttle (violas), Leopold Teraspusky (cello) and Daniel Saidenburg (cellos) and June Rotenburg (double-bass)
Recorded, Prades, June 1950
PEARL GEMS 0200 [2 CDs: 137.46]

Weighty and idiosyncratic these Brandenburg Concertos are complexly moving documents that simultaneously explore Casals’ profound identification with Bach’s music and also expose his occasional weaknesses as a conductor. The assembled orchestra, the Prades Festival Orchestra, was composed principally of American-based acolytes led by the first violin of the Budapest Quartet, Alexander Schneider. Principal cellist was Paul Tortelier and behind him sat Pittsburgh principal Leopold Teraspusky. The Philadelphia oboist, renowned Marcel Tabuteau, took his elevated place and Toscanini’s NBC principal flautist John Wummer was there as well. A look at the personnel will show that the youthful Eugene Istomin played a part and that he and the patriarchal Szigeti take on big roles in the Fifth Concerto. I believe that Casals’ brother, Enrique, led the second violins. The recordings were made after concert performance in the dining hall of a local girls school and had to contend with an initially unsympathetic acoustic and some passing noise.

Pearl have done well with the transfers but there’s no disguising the imperfections inherent in the original recording; a certain desiccation now and then and an unfocused perspective with a degree of imprecision. Still, these are hardly insurmountable barriers to enjoyment and will be taken as read by those coming to these discs, Casals’ first thoughts on record – he was more famously to record the Brandenburgs in Marlboro in 1964/65 with Schneider once again his leader. The orchestral blend may prove a handicap to some in the opening of the First Concerto and one must allow Casals the courtesy of seeing things his way; even for its time the opening Allegro was more Henry Wood than Adolf Busch, albeit with exceptionally expressive string portamenti and lyrical freedom. In the slow movement Schneider’s sweet toned playing is complemented by Tabuteau’s seemingly unselfconscious eloquence and also deepened by Casals’s excavation of the bass line; the Allegro section is robust, buoyant and expansive with a very expressive rallentando indeed. The opening Allegro of the Second Concerto is praised in the notes but sounds to me rushed and poorly articulated; others may indeed find "drive and panache" but the Prades orchestra sounds big and unwieldy under Casals’ direction and the result one of gabbled phrasing and loss of scale. But it is worth persevering here for the quixotic use of Marcel Mule, one of the world’s premier classical saxophonists, whom Casals deploys instead of the trumpeter one would normally expect. It’s certainly interesting to hear him in the Allegro assai – and in comparison I felt some of Schneider and John Wummer’s phrasing in the Andante just a touch effete.

The heaviness that can afflict some of Casals’ conducting is manifest in the first of the two movements of the G major No. 3. Casals certainly takes a painterly brush to this work, imbuing it with deep seriousness and drama. But in the concluding Allegro the heavily exaggerated diminuendi (presumably to reinforce the solo/tutti dichotomy) sound more than a little forced and theatrical. One of the pleasures of this set is to listen to the solo contributions of such as Wummer – especially attractive in the opening Allegro of No. 4 – and to contrast their performance with such as Moyse for Busch. The Andante of this Concerto incidentally is phrased by Casals with all the rapt intensity of a passion, with a vocalised spirituality that impresses deeply. One other aspect is noteworthy. Pearl’s documentation is silent on the matter but there was a harpsichordist in the orchestra, Fernando Valentini, but here, as elsewhere, his contribution is - at least to me - entirely inaudible. I liked Schneider’s crisp bowing in the Presto here, but Casals’ direction is sometimes rather babbly. The Fifth brings guest Joseph Szigeti to the fore. He is occasionally out phrased by Wummer’s flute but the unduly ponderous tempo Casals insists on for the opening Allegro – shades of his hopeless Sinfonia Concertante Andante for Stern and Primrose at around the same time – certainly doesn’t help the violinist. Szigeti’s tone is far wirier than of old. It’s interesting to contrast the heaviness here of Casals with the chamber sized intimacy and relative lightness of Adolf Busch, whose playing and leading impresses me rather more sympathetically. There is even a case to be made for preferring the Cortot led 1932 French recording. This, for all its outrageous solecisms and crescendo-decrescendo aesthetic and heart stopping dynamic variations, at least features Jacques Thibaud’s exquisitely sweet playing. Elsewhere I am strongly impressed, as ever, by Szigeti’s sagacity in Bach – he was truly one of the most insightful Bach players of his generation – even if his playing in the finale can get acidic. The final Concerto is actually quite brisk with an affecting Adagio ma non tanto taken at an excellent tempo. I admit the Allegro finale took me by surprise; by some alchemical procedure it manages to be both heavy and buoyant as well. This has to do with the nature of the phrasing and the clear string entry points. The discs are more than rounded out by the other items, all sans Casals. Mannes is eloquent in the Musical Offering and Wummer impresses again in the Sonata where he is full of fluidity. There is a tremendous bonus in the Ricercare in the shape of the viola players Milton Thomas and Karen Tuttle who make a glorious tonal blend. Violinist Schneider is joined by peripatetic Englishwoman Orrea Pernel (whose name is spelt wrongly in the documentation).

Pearl is gradually working its way through the Prades and Perpignan Festivals, bringing them out as elegant slimline twofers. Notes are fine and Roger Beardsley has minimised the liabilities of the original sound without compromising it; in fact managing to make these works sound fine.

Jonathan Woolf

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