About this Recording
8.110986 - CASALS, Pablo: Encores and Transcriptions, Vol. 4: Complete Acoustic Recordings, Part 2 (1916-1920)

Pablo Casals - Encores and Transcriptions • 4

‘The greatest cellist of all time’ was the description given to the Catalan musician Pablo Casals by the Columbia Graphophone Company, Ltd. in its ornate catalogues. Eight decades after the records on this compact disc were made, the words still ring true. There have been more virtuosic cellists than Casals and many have been more scrupulous about musical minutiae than he. Yet the little man who liked to puff on a pipe as he practised is still sending out the same smoke signal to his successors: this is how the cello should sound. And, although some of the pieces in this programme may seem trivial, they all have one thing in common – they can be sung. Casals was one of the great singers: he simply chose to sing on the cello rather than with his voice. Like many of his co-evals, he was quite happy to please his public with trifles, in the hope that they might also lend an ear to his weightier repertoire. The first twelve tracks here were recorded at a fraught time for him. Only weeks earlier, the great Catalan pianist and composer Enrique Granados, on route back to Spain after the triumph of his opera Goyescas at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, had been lost in the torpedoing of the liner Sussex by a German U-boat. Casals had rejoiced in his friend’s success and his grief was all the greater as a result: he felt the loss of Granados not just as a personal blow but as a tragedy for Spanish music. No wonder he included the composer’s most famous piano piece, in his own excellent cello transcription, in his April 1916 sessions. Then there was a gap of four years before he again entered the American Columbia studios. What with the war, which restricted the release of gramophone records, and Casals’s own frantic activity – unhappy over the state of his marriage, he plunged into work, and immediately after the war launched his orchestra in Barcelona – there was probably no question of recording during the interim.

The legendary Pau (or Pablo) Casals was born on 29th December 1876 in Vendrell, a little town in Catalonia 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 the age of eleven 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 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 Tomás Bretón and Jesús de Monasterio. He made his Madrid orchestral début with Lalo’s 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.

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 unique. 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 studying the Bach Suites for a dozen years, he started performing them in public in the early years of the twentieth century, often programming one alongside a concerto. In 1905 he began playing trios with Alfred Cortot and Jacques Thibaud – their ensemble would last until 1934. For more than three decades Casals toured the world as the leading exponent of the cello. In 1919 he returned to Catalonia, settling in Barcelona, where he quickly founded the Orquestra Pau Casals. Its first concert was given in 1920 and in 1931 he conducted it in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to mark the birth of the Spanish Republic. But the civil war and the Nationalist victory caused a rift in his life and career. A man of deep 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, 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 married 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.

As before, Columbia provided Casals with a small orchestra for some tracks; otherwise he had the services of an accompanist. Although many of the pieces had to be cut to fit the 78rpm format, he managed to set down some real cello repertoire, movements from the concerto by the German cellist Georg Eduard Goltermann (1824-98) and the only Haydn concerto then known, the opening movement – usually played as a finale in Casals’s time – of a Boccherini sonata, and two pieces by Saint-Saëns, the gravely beautiful Swan and lively Allegro appassionato. Two pieces, Wolfram’s aria ‘O star of eve’ from Tannhäuser and Schumann’s Abendlied, were recorded at both the 1916 and 1920 sessions. All the selections were issued in America but in Britain they suffered mixed fates. The two pieces by Haydn, the two by Saint-Saëns, the Granados, Mendelssohn, Schumann Träumerei, 1916 Schumann Abendlied, Handel, Rubinstein, Liszt, Lassen and 1920 Wagner were not released at all, although The Swan was announced for a single-sided issue. The rest were given single-sided releases on the purple label for varying lengths of time but were deleted in 1924. Five of them – the Bach Air, Goltermann, Boccherini, 1920 Schumann Abendlied and 1916 Wagner aria – were then given double-sided purple label releases in time for the 1925 catalogue and lasted through to 1944. A rarity was created when an alternate take of the Tannhäuser aria was briefly released in 1926, only to be withdrawn so that the original take could be reinstated. Curiously, the English Columbia catalogue kept insisting that the Wagner/Schumann coupling had piano accompaniment. All the pieces show Casals at the peak of his form and the recordings are good enough to show what we missed when Columbia decided not to record him in major works. His ‘speaking’ tone was never more beautiful than in the Kreisler piece, which, when it was recorded, was said to be by François Couperin (Kreisler later owned up). Incidentally, this is one of six pieces here that are unique to Casals’s discography: the others are the Goltermann, Mendelssohn, Allegro appassionato, Lassen song and Mozart (a strange arrangement which adds a cello to the original scoring). Ward Marston has found an alternate take for the latter: one version was issued in England, one in America.

Tully Potter

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