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.
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.
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).
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.