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Pablo Casals and Rudolf Serkin: BEETHOVEN: Works for Cello and Piano – Pablo Casals, cello/ Rudolf Serkin, piano – Praga Digitals 

BEETHOVEN: Works for Cello and Piano = Sonata in F Major, Op. 5, No. 1; Sonata in g minor, OP. 5, No. 2; Seven Variations on “Bein Maennern, welche Liebe fuehler” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, WoO 46; Twelve Variations on “Ein Maedchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Op. 66;  Sonata in A Major, Op. 69; Sonata in C Major, Op. 102, No. 1; Sonata in d Major, Op. 102, No. 2; Twelve Variations on “See, the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, WoO 45 – Pablo Casals, cello/ Rudolf Serkin, piano – Praga Digitals PRD 250 372 (2 CDs) 80:35; 81:30 (6/16/17) [Distr. Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Praga restores the classic set of Beethoven works for cello and piano by the legendary Casals and Serkin.

Most lovers of the great cello masters will acknowledge Pablo Casals (1876-1973) as the legendary representative of the 19th Century “romantic” school of musicianship, which rather came to an end with the advent of Emanuel Feuerman. Casals collaborated with Bohemian pianist Rudolf Serkin (1903-1991) in 1952 and 1953 specifically to record Beethoven’s oeuvre for cello and piano, excluding the transcription of the Op. 17 Horn Sonata. The two veteran musicians had endured temperamental clashes: apocrypha has it that they differed so completely on how the keyboard entry to the Beethoven G Major Concerto should go that the two did not speak together for a number of years.

If the men did not speak for a time, there is no shortage of vocalization in these documents, which register two instrumentalists who like to sing along with their respective digital manipulations. From the outset of Beethoven’s expansive 1797 F Major Sonata, Op. 5, No. 1, its Adagio sostenuto – Allegro not only sails along with spirited exuberance, but with many a resounding grunt or groan.  For all of Casals’ often gritty tone, Serkin provides an elastic, brilliant keyboard sound that impels the musical line ever forward.  The second movement Rondo enjoys Casals’ drone that imparts a rustic energy to the proceedings, meant originally to highlight the keyboard part with violoncello obbligato.  No less persuasive on its own terms, the g minor Sonata reveals Casals’ deeply affecting cantabile style—at first, Adagio sostenuto e espressivo,  moving in unison with Serkin—that remains readily capable of emotional explosions at Beethoven’s request. Each of the Op. 5 sonatas retains only two movements, but their first-movement scope already transcends any duo concertante music contemporary with their publication. Beethoven’s syncopations flow effortlessly and joyfully.  For the bold strokes in Casals’ cello, Serkin has his patented trill and dynamic runs. The concluding Rondo, here too, enjoys a voluptuously earthy realization that takes its cue from Haydn but adds a polished zest that Beethoven would refine to his own specifications.

Typically, when I audition the “complete” Beethoven cello works, I gravitate immediately to the 1807 A Major Sonata, Op. 69, if only because its melodic content and developmental structure both prove captivating, especially when the main theme enters in the minor.  The sheer force of the collaboration reminds us that in this phenomenal work Beethoven established a true equality of the instruments. Casals has moments in the early ascending cadenza in the first movement; the Scherzo has a lusty, playful temperament; and both participants manage the transition from eighths to sixteenths in the last movement with fervent authority.

The two sonatas of Op. 102 remain true to Beethoven’s sense of compression that mark his late style, even returning to the two-movement structure for the C Major Sonata. The strange emotional tenor of the work moves between C Major and a minor, leaping in fourths, and while adhering to an idiosyncratic sonata-form, often indulging in flights of rhapsodic fantasy.  Serkin often projects a steely tone that literally confronts Casals’ rasping string tone or grumbling drone bass. The slow introductions to the two movements have a hazy momentum of their own, a sound world that might better inform the world of Debussy. The D Major Sonata immediately strikes a contrast between bold declamation and lyrical conciliation.  Moments of counterpoint sometimes clash with short, impulsive gestures. This sonata, curiously, possesses the one true slow movement of the set of five.  A weird cello chorale in eighth notes has a staggered chain of halting, dotted notes in the piano. If the lyricism seems to grope forward, the finale becomes rigorously “learned” by way of fugal procedure.  Casals and Serkin, however, manage to avoid any sense of the “academy” in a performance of luminous beauty.

The sets of variations, while celebrating Beethoven’s great admiration for Mozart and Handel, set in glowing terms Beethoven’s capacity for wit and musical invention. The Bei Maennern set from Mozart’s charming duet for Papageno and Pamina that captures the ironies of love and infatuation, includes wonderful touches, as in the move to e-flat minor in Variation 4. These works allow for a deft lightness from our principals that provides a great foil to the often epic ambitions in their realization  of the sonatas.

—Gary Lemco

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