For those, including myself, not fortunate enough to hear Casals play live, knowledge of his extraordinary artistry comes mainly from the classic recordings he made in the years before the second world war, probably in particular from those of the Bach Suites and the Dvořák Concerto. In his latter years he lived first in Prada de Conflant and later in Puerto Rico and made a number of recordings as cellist and conductor, often in connection with the Festivals he organised in those places. The two recordings presented here date from that period, and are fascinating, if at times maddening, examples of his extraordinary ability to take full control of the music he played, unashamedly following his own instincts and at all times projecting a strong view of the music.
The Schumann Concerto is a work that lingers of the fringes of the repertoire but which, played with the conviction that Casals brings to it here, reveals itself as a much stronger work that its reputation suggests. The soloist is kept busy for most of the time, with the orchestra’s occasional tuttis
more an opportunity for the soloist to relax for a moment than a major contribution to the work. That does not mean that the orchestral part is unimportant. In the hands of a sympathetic conductor as Eugene Ormandy shows himself to be the interplay between orchestra and soloist and the subtle variation of pace produce an impression more that of an intimate conversation than of a dutiful servant or of a duel. In the slow central section a solo cello from the orchestra adds a further thread to the soloist’s line, filling in the chords in double stopped sections and producing a texture of great richness. All too often in modern recordings this orchestral cello is virtually inaudible which spoils the effect the composer has so carefully arranged. In the present version the balance between the two cellos is nearly perfect and this movement is the true heart of the work as it should be. In other ways the sound is not so good. At the start the wavery chords from the woodwind and the very audible groan from the soloist made me fear the worst, but matters improve, and the internal balance is surprisingly good. I have not heard earlier versions of this recording but listening to Mark Obert-Thorn’s restoration I found that I was very quickly so taken up with the music making that any remaining defects were quickly forgotten.
One serious defect does remain, however, and was clearly inherent in Casal’s approach to the Concerto. In the final section, after the key has changed to A major, the soloist has a brief cadenza before Letter V in the published score. The soloist then has a series of triplets which accompany pizzicato notes from the strings and quiet chords from the woodwind before a brief, faster, conclusion from Letter W. At one time it was common for soloists to replace the passage from V to W with a cadenza of their own, and this is what Casals does. Exciting as his playing is at this point this means the loss of one of the composer’s most poetic effects. I hope to listen to this recording many more times for its insights into the first and second movements but I suspect that I will switch it off before getting to what I regard as a sad misrepresentation of the work’s conclusion.
The Dvořák Concerto is very different to the well known recording made in 1937, and also available on Pristine Audio. Casals was in his 84th
year and this is obvious at times, with some loss of his earlier techniques and a few slips. It is not surprising that he would not allow it to be issued in his lifetime, and the present issue – the first on CD - derives from an unauthorised release before Everest were made aware of this. It is nonetheless very well worth hearing, albeit that no one would put it at the top of any list of great recordings of the Concerto. Its great merits are the very outgoing and coherent approach of the soloist, always intent on projecting the meaning of each phrase, and the excellent and sympathetic accompaniment. The orchestra may not be one of the world’s greatest, but that is of no concern when they are so much a part of a genuine performance of the work; no mere routine here.
This is clearly not an issue that could be unhesitatingly recommended for either Concerto, and indeed its defects are very obvious. Nonetheless admirers of Casals and anyone whose preference is for characterful rather than perfect performances will find much to enjoy here.
Masterwork Index: Dvorak cello concerto