Value can be assessed in many ways but whilst Casals’ 1953 Schumann Concerto is uncommon, the 1960 Dvořák is a super-rarity. For the former the cellist was teamed with Eugene Ormandy and the Prades Festival Orchestra in a 1953 mono recording for American Columbia, subsequently reissued on Odyssey. Mark Obert-Thorn surmises that the reason that Ormandy’s name was omitted on both LPs was contractual. Casals had by now been enticed back into the world of recording, breaking the self-imposed ban made in 1945 when disgusted by what he saw as the Allies’ indifference to Spain’s plight under Franco. The Schumann concerto reveals huge levels of commitment and authority but it is also saddled – no other way to put it – with a number of obvious deficiencies. Prominent among them is Casals’s grunting – a compound of Toscanini and Barbirolli and then some - but so too is a purely musical matter. His articulation is extremely precarious at points – the lower strings being explicitly guttural and unwarmed – and his rubati are sometimes stretched to the very limit of the phrases’ tolerance level. And yet this is a remarkable performance at the same time. His phrasing is still impressive, the transition to the central movement beautifully conceived, and every phrase bears the indelible impression of his great knowledge and experience. In this concerto, of all cello concertos, it pays to be a soloist and chamber musician par excellence, and Casals was master of both arts. Imperfect though it is, his legato in the finale is still deeply expressive and the inevitable technical failings to be heard do not diminish admiration for this recording, which is still an important document for admirers of the great Catalan musician.
The companion concerto recording is a real coup. Taped in the spring of 1960 in the Theatre of the University of Puerto Rico – where Casals had gone to live, having married - this stereo Dvořák LP has been whispered about but hardly ever heard. I’ve certainly missed the CD reissues mentioned in Obert-Thorn’s brief notes, but they must have been obscure. Alexander Schneider directed the Festival Casals Orchestra of Puerto Rico for the Everest label but due to a misunderstanding the resultant release had not been approved by Casals who then sued to have it withdrawn, which is was. It was too late, though, to recall those LPs that had already been sold. The reason for withdrawal was damage to Casals’ reputation, so you will guess that the performance is subject to all sort of critical concerns. He was 83 and could hardly be expected to have displayed an invincible technique. His performance timings are invariably slower than the famous pre-war 78 set in Prague with Szell and unlike that set this stereo remake sees him acoustically speaking placed somewhere toward the middle of the sound spectrum as if to mitigate some of the rasping and somewhat painful chording. There are groans throughout, and much of the playing in the finale is only sketchy, but there is still a heartfelt sense of lyricism in the slow movement and some lovely phrasing even in the finale.
So whatever frailties there are, they must be seen in context. Casals’s recordings, even these very late ones, have important things to tell us.
Previous review: John Sheppard
Masterwork Index: Dvorak cello concerto