About this Recording
8.110930 - DVORAK, A.: Cello Concerto / BRAHMS, J.: Double Concerto (Casals, Thibaud) (1929, 1937)

These two recordings represent several sides of the outsize personality we remember as Pablo Casals – although he himself would probably have preferred to be recalled as Pau, the Catalan version of his Christian name. Casals was a fervent Catalan nationalist and the first performance on this disc is a souvenir of his efforts to bring musical culture to the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona. It also reminds us how important friendship was to this difficult, single-minded, often stubborn man. For three decades he set aside part of each year for trio recitals with two French colleagues, the pianist Alfred Cortot and the violinist Jacques Thibaud. The trio’s recordings are still selling, more than 70 years after they were made. No one thought of recording them in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto but luckily Fred Gaisberg of His Master’s Voice did make the effort to capture Thibaud and Casals in Brahms’s Double Concerto. This work, written by the composer specifically to heal a breach between him and his longtime friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim, has borne the stamp of friendship since its first performance; so what could be more natural than that our two string players should have their colleague Cortot, an experienced conductor, directing the orchestra for them? Choose for your orchestra the ensemble which Casals has relatively recently founded in Barcelona and of which his brother Enrique is the leader, and you have the recipe for an unusually fervent interpretation. We shall come to the miracle of the Dvorák performance in a moment; but first we should consider the phenomenon of Casals himself.

He was born on 29 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,’ he 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 11 he heard a real cello, which confirmed it was the instrument for him. His father bought him a small one and gave him lessons; and soon he began studying at the Municipal School of Music in Barcelona. Cello playing had not greatly advanced since the days of Luigi 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,’ recalled Casals. 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 an edition of the Bach solo 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.

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 worked 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 20th 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 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 regime 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 organised 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 22 October 1973.

Our two performances resulted from the opportunism that made American-born Fred Gaisberg the greatest producer in the history of the gramophone. In May 1929 Casals presented an all-Brahms programme with his orchestra in Barcelona. Gaisberg leapt at the chance to capture the all-star cast in the Double Concerto, even if it meant putting up with a willing but second-rank orchestra. The sessions were held on the two days following the concert, which meant that everyone was thoroughly rehearsed, and Thibaud’s slim-toned, relaxed playing made a delightful foil for Casals’s intensity. As for Antonín Dvorák’s Concerto in B minor, until 1937 no adequate record existed of this, the greatest work for the cello. Emanuel Feuermann – who would have been Casals’s successor, had he not died before the age of 40 – had shown the way but his recording was badly made, with an excruciating accompaniment. In 1937 the brilliant young conductor George Szell mentioned to Gaisberg that he and Casals would be performing the Concerto in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic. Finding that Casals would have one day to spare after the concert and that both he and Szell would be willing to devote that day to a recording, Gaisberg despatched a technical crew and equipment, then himself travelled to Prague to supervise. The 60-year-old Casals, who was already tired when he arrived in Prague, having travelled direct from Barcelona, played the rehearsal and the concert on his usual rush of adrenalin, winning an ovation from the critical Czech audience. But he still had to raise his interpretation to a similar peak the following day, in order to complete more than two perfect performances of the massive work – it was customary to make two ‘takes’ of each 78rpm side and even if the soloist did his part well, there was a chance that a member of the orchestra would make a mistake. With the efficient Szell in charge and the players keyed up, however, it all went smoothly and only one side of the finale had to go to three takes. Gaisberg, an expert at creating the right atmosphere in sessions, kept an anxious eye on Casals through the 21 takes. ‘As the last record was made,’ he recalled, ‘[Casals] collapsed completely and allowed us to take him to his hotel, where we saw that he was carefully looked after. We waited until he lit up his pipe and got it going well and then left, knowing the little man was all right.’ The performance still sounds wonderful today. Szell and Casals keep Dvorák’s rhythms crisp and buoyant, unlike so many of today’s conductors and soloists – the interpretation of Mstislav Rostropovich has become more bizarre with each passing year. The superb Czech Philharmonic has made other recordings of the Concerto, with Anya Thauer, Josef Chuchro, Milos Sádlo, Julian Lloyd Webber and Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, but this version, which has rarely been out of the catalogue since it was released, sails serenely on, its impact undimmed by age. We have seen great cellists since Casals’s prime but none to match his embodiment of vigour, spirituality and humanity.

Close the window