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Pablo Casals
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, op. 104 (1894/5) [34:21] (1)
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Kol Nidrei, op. 47 (1881) [11:36] (2)
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor, op. 85 (1919) [27:05] (3)
Pablo Casals (cello), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/George Szell (1), London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Landon Ronald (2), BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult (3)
rec. Prague, 28th April 1937 (1), London, 27th November 1936 (2), London, 14th October 1945 (3)


The name of Pablo Casals remains mythical as that of the man who put the cello on the map. And yet, there were proficient cellists before him while the generations which came after have surely produced several who can do all he could if not more. In Rostropovich the world has even found a cellist able to don something of Casals’s moral mantle – which Stravinsky waspishly summed up as “he is in favour of peace, against Franco and believes in playing Bach in the style of Brahms”. Stravinsky may be forgiven his unkindness since he had just turned on the television and heard Casals and Kodaly discussing “the trouble with Stravinsky”. Rostropovich, incidentally, is surely much less simplistic in his political and moral stances, as befits our more complex world.

I am not trying to knock the legend, however, for it has a valid point: it was Casals who developed a big tone which projected strongly to the public. Records of cellists who had learnt their art before the advent of Casals reveal a more wavery, if gentler sound. The cellist we hear on this disc could well be a modern musician, especially when the recordings, which I had remembered as sounding rather dim on LP transfers, find a striking presence, the downside of which is some strident orchestral fortes; but I am sure it was right to concentrate on getting Casals to sound as good as possible.

In spite of Casals’ inestimable influence as a cellist, he seems to have had surprisingly little influence as an interpreter. If his Elgar tended to divide opinion in its day, I doubt if things have changed very much, for no one has really followed him along this particular road. It is not just a question of slow tempi - the famous Du Pré/Barbirolli recording is longer by several minutes - but his rubato gives the first movement, in particular, a curiously meandering effect. Boult no doubt had rather different ideas, but you would never guess from his loyal support. It was and still is a performance outside the mainstream, though it certainly deserves hearing for its many beauties.

Closely analysed, Casals tends to use more genuine rubato within the framework of stricter tempi than is normal today – it’s so much easier to play around with the tempi and call it rubato. Except that, in the context of this basically rather disciplined approach, he sometimes, in the Dvořák, takes a passage at a quite different tempo. The upshot is that this, too, is a performance that will sound a little odd to modern ears – faster than usual in some places, slower in others, sometimes very free, sometimes surprisingly rigorous. For all the fame of this recording, and beautiful as the playing is, it has not inspired much emulation - as Rostropovich’s performances, for better or worse, have - and it, too, remains outside the mainstream. I wish, also, that the Czech Philharmonic had been conducted by their chief conductor Václav Talich, for under Szell’s taut direction it is no longer the singingly Dvořákian instrument it normally was and remained for at least another thirty years. The blandly metropolitan sound of its (usually) pastoral woodwind is certainly a demonstration of what a conductor can do to an orchestra, but it’s a demonstration I would rather have heard applied to other music.

Perhaps the piece I enjoyed most was the Bruch, not a work that normally inspires me greatly. Here the warmth and nobility of Casals’ playing elevates it beyond what one might have supposed possible, and the heartfelt warmth of Ronald’s very well played accompaniment reminds us that this conductor perhaps deserves re-examination on his own account, not just as an accompanist.

Historically-minded listeners will certainly want to hear the legendary cellist playing two of the greatest concertos for the instrument, but it would be idle to claim that the less specialized will, by sacrificing modern sound, acquire performances that surpass all others.

Christopher Howell



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