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8.110915-16 - BACH, J.S.: Cello Suites Nos. 1-6 (Casals) (1927-1939)
J. S. Bach (1685-1750):
It was a great day for music when, in around 1890, a Catalan boy only just into his teens found an edition of some unfamiliar pieces in a Barcelona music shop. The boy was Pau (or Pablo) Casals and his find was a set of six suites for unaccompanied cello by Johann Sebastian Bach. Today, when Bach’s music is daily currency, it is hard to think of a time when much of it was unknown. Felix Mendelssohn had begun a Bach revival earlier in the nineteenth century but such works as the Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin or the Suites for unaccompanied cello were considered outlandish; composers, including Schumann, even wrote piano accompaniments to them. Cello playing itself had not advanced greatly since the days of Boccherini. The invention of the spike or endpin had freed the body of the instrument from being gripped between the knees, so that it resonated more freely; but some players were still operating in the old way, without a spike. Worst of all, the bowing arm was restricted. ‘We were taught to play a with a stiff arm and obliged to keep a book under the armpit,’ said Casals, the man who changed all that.
He was born on 29th December 1876 in Vendrell, a little town where his father was organist and choirmaster. ‘I owe nearly all my talent at music to the influence of my father,’ Casals wrote. ‘As soon as I could walk he took me to all the services at the church, so that the Gregorian chant, the chorales and the organ voluntaries became part of myself and of my daily life. Carlos Casals taught Pau to sing, play the piano and organ and even compose; at six the boy had mastered the violin well enough to play a solo in public. Fascinated by a broom handle strung like a cello, used by an itinerant Catalan musician, he described it to his father, who built him a little cello using a gourd for a sound-box. ‘On this home-made contrivance I learnt to play the many songs my father composed, and the popular songs which reached the village from the outside world.’ At eleven he heard a real cello, which confirmed it was the instrument for him. His father bought him a small cello and gave him some lessons; and soon he began studying at the Municipal School of Music in Barcelona. While playing in a café trio to pay for his keep, he was heard by the composer Albéniz. Soon he had an ensemble of seven at a grander café - and it was while he and his father were looking for music for this band to play that he found the Bach Suites. He met Sarasate and with Albéniz's help moved to Madrid, found a patron and became Queen Maria Cristina’s favourite musician, studying at the Conservatory with Tomas Bretón and Jesus de Monasterio. He made his Madrid orchestral début with the Lalo Concerto and in 1899 played it at the Crystal Palace in London and the Lamoureux Concerts in Paris. In 1901 he toured America and in 1905 he settled in Paris, forming a famous trio with Alfred Cortot and Jacques Thibaud.
Hot-blooded and temperamental, Casals had a high-profile affair with his Portuguese pupil Guilhermina Suggia and a failed marriage to the singer Susan Metcalfe. In public he was quickly recognised as the greatest cellist. Fritz Kreisler was making an impact with his subtle use of vibrato on the violin and Casals was working on similar lines with the cello, astonishing his peers with the freedom of his bowing, his use of ‘expressive intonation’ and his technical innovations. After working on the Bach Suites for a dozen years, he began playing them in public in the early years of the twentieth century, often programming one alongside a concerto. In 1919 he organised the Orquestra Pau Casals in Barcelona and in 1931 conducted it in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to mark the birth of the Spanish Republic. But the civil war and the Fascist victory caused a rift in Casals’s life and career. A man of deep principle who refused to play in Hitler's Germany, he was implacably opposed to Franco’s régime and in 1939, threatened with execution if he returned to Spain, he went into exile in southern France. After World War II, feeling that Britain and America were appeasing Franco, he abruptly stopped playing in public, breaking off a London recording session with Haydn’s D major Concerto two-thirds done. But from 1950 American admirers organized a festival around him at his new home town, Prades, and in his old age, Casals had a new lease of life as chamber musician, teacher, conductor and musical guru. In 1956 he moved to his mother's native country, Puerto Rico, and the following year he wed his young pupil Marta Montañez. He played in 1958 at the United Nations and in 1961 at the White House. He died in Puerto Rico on 22nd October 1973.
Pablo Casals’s records of the Bach Suites were made under the best possible circumstances. By the 1930s his interpretations had ripened but he was still at his peak technically - and HMV in London was making the best recordings in the world. The performances speak for themselves but an observant listener will note the extraordinary variety of vibrato, ranging from none at all through to the full Casals vibrato, a wondrous thing to hear. Then there is the choice of tempo, sometimes faster than you might expect, sometimes slower, but always underpinned by an exceptional sense of rhythm. Casals can take quite a romantic view, as in the Prelude of the Second Suite, where he begins in a probing, questioning way and heightens tempo, tension and volume until he achieves a colossal sense of release, before finishing the movement in the normal fashion. He gets away with such liberties because everything is done with utter conviction: each tempo, each rhythmic impulse seems to arise from his inner being. No wonder these interpretations have not been surpassed. The short fillers shed further light on Casals’s sonorous Bach style, giving us further glimpses of his gorgeous tone, his beautiful legato and the way he could keep the sound of the cello alive and breathing even in slow music. We have seen some great cellists since his prime but none to match his embodiment of vigour, spirituality and humanity.
In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy Award for his production work on BMG’s Fritz Kreisler collection. According to the Chicago Tribune, Marston’s name is ‘synonymous with tender loving care to collectors of historical CDs’ Opera News calls his work ‘revelatory’, and Fanfare deems him ‘miraculous’. In 1996 Ward Marston received the Gramophone award for Historical Vocal Recording of the Year, honouring his production and engineering work on Romophone’s complete recordings of Lucrezia Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mint's Arturo Toscanini issue and BMG’s Sergey Rachmaninov recordings, both winners of the Best Historical Album Grammy. Born blind in 1952, Ward Marston has amassed tens of thousands of opera classical records over the past four decades. Following a stint in radio while a student at Williams College, he became well-known as a reissue producer in 1979, when he restored the earliest known stereo recording made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932. In the past, Ward Marston has produced records for a number of major and specialist record companies. Now he is bringing his distinctive sonic vision to bear on works released on the Naxos Historical label. Ultimately his goal is to make the music he remasters sound as natural as possible and true to life by ‘lifting the voices’ off his old 78 rpm recordings. His aim is to promote the importance of preserving old recordings and make available the works of great musicians who need to be heard.
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