About this Recording
8.110185 - MENDELSSOHN / SCHUMANN: Trios (Thibaud / Casals / Cortot) (1927-1928)

Thibaud • Casals • Cortot: Trio Recordings, Vol. 1

Mendelssohn: Trio in D minor, Op. 49 • Schumann: Trio in D minor, Op. 63

The piano trio is an ideal medium for great musical personalities to express themselves while indulging in the friendly discourse that is the essence of chamber music. In the first third of the twentieth century one such ensemble shone above all others. Based in Paris, it brought together the French pianist Alfred Cortot, his compatriot the violinist Jacques Thibaud, and the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals. For three decades these sought-after soloists set aside part of almost every year for trio recitals; and the records they made together for HMV are still selling, even though more than seventy years have passed.

Cortot, an unashamedly romantic pianist who was perhaps the finest exponent of Chopin, Schumann and Franck in his time, was born at Nyon, Switzerland, on 26th September 1877 of a French father and a Swiss mother. When he was nine the family moved to Paris so that he could study at the Conservatoire with Émile Decombes, who had been a member of Chopin’s circle. Moving on to the class of Louis Diémer, Cortot took a first prize in 1895, and the next year he made a successful début. As a repetiteur at Bayreuth from 1898 to 1901, he immersed himself in Wagner’s works; he then conducted some of the earliest performances of them in France. The only examples of his conducting that we have on record are a rather wacky set of the Brandenburg Concertos and the Brahms Double Concerto with Thibaud and Casals. As a pianist he made many records and although some of these suggest that he did not practise overmuch - one wonders when he would have had time to do so, he was so busy - they also prove that he commanded a transcendental basic technique. It was as an interpreter, however, that he was most valued; his recitals were legendary and his classes in interpretation were influential. He was professor of piano at the Conservatoire from 1907 to 1918, founded the Ecole Normale de Musique in 1919 and continued to teach until his death in Lausanne on 15th June 1962.

Jacques Thibaud, born in Bordeaux on 27th September 1880, epitomized the elegance and grace of the Franco-Belgian school, and his relaxed, easy-going manner fused with a natural wit to make a unique musician. His father, a music teacher, at first wanted him to be a pianist but Jacques gave his first violin recital at the age of eight and when he was twelve entered the Paris Conservatoire under Martin Marsick. In the 1894 contest he played disastrously but two years later he took a first prize. Playing in the Café Rouge in the city’s Latin Quarter, he was heard by Edouard Colonne and recruited for his orchestra. When the leader could not play the Prélude to Saint-Saëns’s Le Déluge, Thibaud was asked to take his place and became a regular soloist, appearing 54 times in the 1898/9 season. His tour of America in 1903/4 sealed his success. He was a key figure in setting up the Ecole Normale. In his early years he was a superb virtuoso, but, not being addicted to hard work, let his technique slip a little; the innate musicality of his performances and the suavity of his platform manner usually saved him. Thibaud’s friendship with the pianist Marguerite Long led to recordings and to the establishment of the school and musical competition which bear their joint names. He taught at the school, and in summer at his St Jean de Luz estate. He was killed on 1st September 1953 when the plane taking him to the Far East for a tour crashed on Mont Cemet, near Barcelonette.

Pablo Casals was born on 29th December 1876 in Vendrell and at first was taught by his father, an organist and choirmaster. His first cello was a home-made affair modelled on a Catalan folk instrument. While playing in a café trio, he was heard by Albéniz, who helped him to move to Madrid and study at the Conservatory with Tomas Bretón and Jesús de Monasterio. He made his Madrid orchestral début with the Lalo Cello 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. Having worked many things out for himself, Casals revolutionised cello technique, freeing the bow arm, employing left-hand extensions and pioneering constant vibrato. In 1919 he organized the Orquestra Pau Casals in Barcelona and in 1931 conducted it in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to mark the birth of the Spanish Republic. The Civil War caused a rift in Casals’s life and career. A man of 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, 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, where he died on 22nd October 1973.

The friends formed their trio in 1905, soon after Casals moved to the Villa Molitor in the Auteuil district of Paris. At first they performed for fun - they enjoyed each other’s company and liked playing tennis together - but in 1906 they expanded to private soirées and in June 1907 they gave three concerts at the Salle des Agriculteurs in Paris. These appearances were so successful that they began to tour Europe as a trio. Their repertoire was small, just 33 works, and in essence amounted to the handful of pieces they recorded, together with the two of Beethoven’s Opus 70 and Schumann’s Trio in G minor. Various other works were played a handful of times or even just once. Their three war-horses were Haydn’s Trio in G major with the ‘Gipsy’ Rondo (39 performances), Schubert’s Trio in B flat (49 performances) and Schumann’s Trio in D minor (37 performances). Emanuel Moór wrote a triple concerto and a trio for them. Their last joint performance was given on 27th March 1934 in the music-room at Il Leccio in Fiesole, on the hillside above Florence, the home of their friends the Passigli family, who ran Amici della Musica. The threesome played the Haydn G major Trio and the Mendelssohn Trio in D minor. The trio later continued after a fashion, with Pierre Fournier taking the place of Casals, who was now too busy to find the time for a regular chamber music partnership, but in any case the Catalan broke with his two friends over their political stances during World War II, and although he made it up with Cortot, he and Thibaud were never reconciled.

The Cortot-Thibaud-Casals Trio began playing in London in 1925 and in the following few years made six recordings. The two performances featured on this disc are typical of their expansive, highly romantic style. Tempi are varied within each movement but this flexibility comes naturally to the players and is used to enhance the intensity of the interpretations. Cortot is the anchor, his playing grand, fervent and rhythmically sure. The two string players make no effort to match each other tonally; Thibaud’s sound is as slim and elegant as his famous moustache, while Casals produces effortless cascades of tone, but they ‘sing’ in sympathy and their legato in slower passages is immaculate. Every note is delivered with warmth and commitment, as they lean into their phrases, and yet both performances exhibit perfect taste. Mendelssohn’s themes are introduced with deceptive simplicity, whereas Schumann’s romantic effusions are rightly given more expressive rubato. The mysterious other-worldly passage in the first movement of the Schumann is intimately explored and they choose a daringly broad tempo for the slow movement, taking more than a minute longer over it than the other great interpreters of this work, Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich. In the finales of both trios Cortot, Thibaud and Casals surge forward irresistibly. As with all the great chamber music ensembles, these irreplaceable artists create a joyous effect that is more than the sum of its exceptional parts.

Tully Potter


Ward Marston

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 recordings 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 78rpm 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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