About this Recording
8.110195 - BEETHOVEN: Archduke Trio (Thibaud / Casals / Cortot) (1926-1927)

Thibaud • Casals • Cortot: Trio Recordings, Vol. 3

Beethoven: Archduke Trio • Kreutzer Sonata • Magic Flute Variations

Although France and the German-speaking countries were often at loggerheads, politically, militarily and culturally, Paris was a notable centre of Beethoven interpretation in the nineteenth century. Whereas the composer’s reputation dipped in most places following his death, even in the German lands, his stock remained high in the French capital. Not that it was all plain sailing. When Beethoven dedicated a violin sonata to the violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, the dedicatee decided the music was ‘outrageously unintelligible’ and never played it, and when Pierre Baillot led two of the late string quartets in 1829, two years after Beethoven’s death, all hell broke loose. Berlioz, who was present, felt he was one of only a handful of people who appreciated the music. Nevertheless, throughout the century Paris was one of the places to go to hear great Beethoven playing; and despite three wars between France and Germany, this situation has remained unchanged. In the past fifty years wonderful Beethoven recordings have been made in Paris. Those on this disc, however, go back further than that; and they feature three legendary musicians whose tastes and skills were formed in the nineteenth century. The French pianist Alfred Cortot, his compatriot the violinist Jacques Thibaud, and the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals based themselves in Paris, and for three decades set aside part of almost every year for trio recitals. The records they made together for HMV are still selling, more than seventy years later.

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 repetiteur 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 one of Couperin’s Concerts royaux, 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 most individual artist. 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 establishing 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 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. 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 Trios, Op. 70. Various other works were played a handful of times or even just once. Their three war-horses 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. They 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 there. The present programme begins with one of an equally celebrated series that Cortot and Thibaud made as a duo. They were highly praised for their performances of the sonatas by Franck (recorded twice), Fauré and Debussy; but this performance of Beethoven’s ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata was equally acclaimed. With his light but stylish playing, Thibaud makes up for Kreutzer’s rejection of the work, and at the keyboard Cortot supplies the necessary strength. This is followed by the only recording that Cortot and Casals made as a pair, just after the sessions for the Mendelssohn Trio in D minor (Naxos 8.110185). One of two sets of variations that Beethoven wrote for cello and piano on themes from Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte, it is based on the duet between the heroine Pamina and the bird-catcher Papageno. Finally we have the loftiest of all piano trios, known as the ‘Archduke’ because Beethoven dedicated it to his pupil Archduke Rudolph, himself an excellent composer. Cortot, Thibaud and Casals played it in public 22 times. They give the four-movement work a performance of immense breadth, quite loose in ensemble and very different from the great 1956 recording by Gilels, Kogan and Rostropovich, which is more tautly organized, more sculpted in phrasing and, to be frank, more secure technically. The older players often seem to be making up the music as they go along. They rise to magnificent heights in the slow movement, a set of variations on a hymn-like theme, then enjoy themselves in the skittish finale.

Tully Potter

Mark Obert-Thorn

Mark Obert-Thorn is one of the world’s most respected transfer artist/engineers. He has worked for a number of specialist labels, including Pearl, Biddulph, Romophone and Music & Arts. Three of his transfers have been nominated for Gramophone Awards. A pianist by training, his passions are music, history and working on projects. He has found a way to combine all three in the transfer of historical recordings.

Obert-Thorn describes himself as a ‘moderate interventionist’ rather than a ‘purist’ or ‘re-processor,’ unlike those who apply significant additions and make major changes to the acoustical qualities of old recordings. His philosophy is that a good transfer should not call attention to itself, but rather allow the performances to be heard with the greatest clarity.

There is no over-reverberant ‘cathedral sound’ in an Obert-Thorn restoration, nor is there the tinny bass and piercing mid-range of many ‘authorised’ commercial issues. He works with the cleanest available 78s, and consistently achieves better results than restoration engineers working with the metal parts from the archives of the modern corporate owners of the original recordings. His transfers preserve the original tone of the old recordings, maximising the details in critical upper mid-range and lower frequencies to achieve a musical integrity that is absent from many other commercially released restorations.

Producer’s Note

The source for the Kreutzer Sonata was a set of vinyl test pressings. The original recording has a great deal of presence and immediacy (at least by 1929 standards), which I was able to retain because this source did not require much filtering. The Magic Flute Variations is a murkier original recording, having been made in the large auditorium of Queen’s Hall; it has been transferred from pre-war U.S. Victor ‘Gold’ label pressings. Finally, I had the luxury of working from no fewer than five Victor ‘Z’ pressing albums for this transfer of the Archduke Trio, assuring that it would be remastered from the quietest commercially-released discs.

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