About this Recording
8.110188 - HAYDN / BEETHOVEN / SCHUBERT: Piano Trios (Thibaud / Cortot / Casals) (1926-1927)

Thibaud • Casals • Cortot: Trio Recordings, Vol. 2

Haydn: Trio in G major • Beethoven: Variations on Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu

Schubert: Trio No. 1 in B flat major

Two of the performances here are among the most celebrated chamber music recordings, while the third is a fascinating sidelight on the discography of a great trio. Based in Paris, this ensemble 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 unashamed romantic 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 répétiteur at Bayreuth from 1898 to 1901, he immersed himself in Wagner’s works, and 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 at 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 most individual artist. His father, a music teacher, at first wanted him to be a pianist but Jacques gave his first violin recital at 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 was at first 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 settled in Paris. Having worked many things out for himself, Casals revolutionised cello technique, freeing the bow arm, employing left-hand extensions and pioneering continuous 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, but the Civil War caused a rift in his life and career. A man of principle who refused to play in Hitler’s Germany, Casals 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, plus Schumann’s Trio in G minor and the two of Beethoven’s Opus 70. Various other works were played a handful of times, or even just once. Their three warhorses were Haydn’s Trio in G major (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 three played Haydn’s Trio in G major and Mendelssohn’s 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 first work they set down was the Schubert Trio in B flat and no recording career has got off to a better start. In the superb acoustic of Kingsway Hall in London, they played with all their finesse, effervescence and warmth. Each time one comes back to this performance, one marvels at the ‘rightness’ of the tempi and the unselfish way in which the three friends combine, each having his say and then withdrawing to let someone else take the stage. Perhaps the slow movement is a highlight; but really the whole interpretation is a highlight. Of the many rival ensembles who have recorded the work since, only the Suk Trio has come so close to capturing the essence of Schubert’s music. Perhaps it was inevitable that after such a tour de force, a disappointment would ensue. On the second day of the Schubert sessions the three essayed a piece they had played only twice before, Beethoven’s set of variations on the comic aria ‘I am the tailor Kakadu’ by Wenzel Müller. They gave a characterful reading, pumping up the grandiloquent introduction, which surely was the inspiration for Dohnányi’s opening to his Variations on a Nursery Song, and collapsing nicely into the theme itself. Sadly the balance, so good in the Schubert, went slightly awry and one of the discs was afflicted with a technical fault, due to an ‘overcooked’ wax master or poor factory processing, which made it very noisy. The recording was therefore not issued until virtually half a century later. It is good to have it, for all its faults. The Haydn Trio with the ‘Gypsy’ Rondo was recorded the following year at sessions which also yielded the Mendelssohn D minor Trio and a set of Beethoven variations for cello and piano. Haydn trios were not well represented in the 78rpm catalogue but even if they had been, this performance would have ruled the roost. It is confident, stylish and musical throughout; and no ensemble since has dared to manipulate the tempo so outrageously in the Rondo, holding right back and then rushing onward in the authentic Hungarian gypsy style. Perhaps it helped that both the string players had ‘paid their dues’ in café bands. Haydn, who loved a joke, would surely have enjoyed this irrepressible performance.

Tully Potter

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