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Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, September 2007

We look sonically far into the past for these fine Casals performances

Anyone familiar with the Prades and Perpignan Festivals of the 1950's knows that Pablo Casals (1876-1973) assumed the conductor's baton in 1920s Spain, organizing his own ensembles. Naxos, through the concerted efforts of restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn, has assembled three major works of the German tradition under Casals, recorded 1927-1929. Particularly vigorous is Casals' HMV rendering of the Beethoven C Major Symphony (8 July 1929), a piece he traversed many times in his career, always trying to unearth its revolutionary spirit beneath the classical surfaces. While the first movement proceeds rather briskly, Casals takes the repeat in the Andante cantabile con moto, emphasizing the burgeoning singer in Beethoven's symphonic output. The last two movements move, no kidding around, the finale's secondary theme and its rockets in red glare. Crisp string lines are assured from Casals' own penchant for the cello, and the energy proves thoroughly infectious, the age of the shellacs notwithstanding. Considering the rarity of these discs of the C Major, the entire restoration is a decided coup.

From HMV shellacs comes the B-flat Symphony (4-5 July 1929), whose slow, mysterious Adagio receives the textural and harmonic treatment it deserves, a la Furtwaengler. Homeric humor erupts at the Allegro vivace, the Barcelona strings sawing for all they are worth. Some of the wind entries, as in the bassoon, are distant. No first movement repeat adds to the hurried, insistent nature of the playing, not always pristine but certainly committed. Nice tympanic roll to usher in the sweep of the last statement of the full theme to the coda, breathless, riveting. Lovely clarinet work marks Casals' Adagio enjoys both momentum and lyricism. Interior lines and transitions flow smoothly, the sonority achieving a Mediterranean, dramatic flair. Casals cuts the repeats in the Menuetto, but its character propels it as an unmitigated scherzo, perhaps a bit too driven for some tastes. Rollicking good humor for the Allegro ma non troppo, the repeat respected, as is the bassoon solo, since Casals slows down for it. The rough and tumble resumes for the last pages, startlingly terraced dynamics, crisp string work and brass work to the final, rapid runs to the intense coda, filled with gruff grumbles and hearty, energetic delight.

The little Ruins of Athens Overture derives from the same July 8, 1929 session that produced the C Major Symphony. The pomposo tune at the opening bubbles forth, frothy, unbuttoned in a fashion worthy of Thomas Beecham. Our unidentified bassoon friend is present in well-defined sound. Casals always took a leisurely, broad approach to the Brahms Haydn Variations, here inscribed at Queen's Hall with the virtuoso London Symphony (6 December 1927) and reproduced with startlingly quiet fidelity. Although Brahms indicates that only one variation, the seventh, be played as a siciliano, Casals elicits the same effect in the course of several of the andante sections. The last variant and finale, another grand andante, achieves an expressive power to make us forget the interpretation was conceived eighty years ago.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2007

The world will remember Pablo Casals as the great cellist of his generation; his role as a concert soloist and as part of the legendary Thibaud-Casals-Cortot Piano Trio are all well documented on disc. We much less think of the Spanish musician as a leading conductor, though he was so intent on this dual career as to form in 1919 his own Barcelona based orchestra, an ensemble of considerable merit as this disc demonstrates. Sadly the CD's contents together with a recording of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture were the sum total of his studio sessions made before the war. We have to accept those performances recorded after 1945 was an old man indulging himself. Yet these two superb symphony recordings show he was a magnificent Beethoven conductor, his fast tempos back in the late 1920's coming four decades before they became fashionable. Indeed if pressed I would probably take his account of the First Symphony before any other, its clear thinking, ideal pace and long sweeping phrases presenting Beethoven unadorned. Of course we have to take the dynamic range he achieved much for granted as the recording obviously narrowed that possibility. I think you will be equally amazed at the immaculately schooled orchestra he had created in Barcelona, a cut above the London Symphony in their Brahms Variations, a performance liberally laced with poor intonation. There is a note of apology with the disc from the restoration engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn, regarding the poor surfaces that were inherent in the original releases, yet the sound on the Barcelona recordings obtained considerable inner detail, and you can feel the electricity that must have been in Casal's reading. After that the Brahms comes as something of a disappointment, some variations sounding laboured, while those given more vivacity only show up the LSO's shortcomings in every department. Still at this low price take the disc for the Beethoven symphonies, and you will have a very pleasant surprise.

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