Pablo Casals: The Late Concerto Recordings = SCHUMANN: Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129; DVORAK: Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 – Pablo Casals, cello/ Prades Festival Orchestra/ Eugene Ormandy (Schumann)/ Festival Casals of Puerto Rico/ Alexander Schneider – Pristine Audio PASC 401, 64:30 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Among the rarer of the Pablo Casals (1876-1973) recorded performances are the inscriptions he made of the Schumann Concerto (28 May 1953) and the Dvorak Concerto (Spring, 1960), particularly the latter of the two. In 1945, in protest against the world’s failure to oust dictator Francisco Franco from Spain, Casals sequestered himself in Prades in France, near the Spanish border. He refused to appear in Spain or in any country that recognized what he felt to be a corrupt and illegitimate government. In 1950, as part of the tributes to the two hundredth anniversary of J.S. Bach, Casals allowed himself to emerge from exile at the urging of violinist Alexander Schneider, establishing a Prades Festival.
Although in the “Indian summer” of his performing career, Casals played the Schumann Concerto with Eugene Ormandy (uncredited on Columbia Records, ML 4926, with cello encore pieces accompanied by Eugene Istomin). Veteran producer and recording engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has revived this and the more elusive Everest record (SDBR 3083) of the Dvorak Concerto with tender loving care, noting that the Dvorak is “an autumnal reading quite different from Casals’s brisker 1937 recording with Szell, and one despite its flaws deserves to be heard.” The 1854 Schumann opens with a decisive, verbal groan from Casals as he sings his accompaniment to the main theme. Fritz Kreisler once called Casals “the greatest musician ever to draw bow,” and much of Casals’ noble line still perseveres, particularly in his studied transition to the Langsam second movement. Developing in resonant chords, the second movement assumes the character of a recitative. Each movement, in a rather experimental procedure, links to the next, and suddenly the Sehr lebhaft third movement surges forward with playful ardor. The mechanics of the four-square rhythm break at the accompanied cadenza – cyclically invoking the main theme of the first movement – that floats in melancholy beauty like the night, an inspiration for Elgar to imitate. The music magically shifts into 6/8 for a lyrically poignant coda.
Casals sued Everest for its having released the LP version of the Dvorak Concerto, his claiming it marred his reputation and must be suppressed. The stereo restoration of the live concert reveals a spirited account, especially from Schneider’s baton over his responsive ensemble. The French horn, oboe, and flute play estimably well. Casals performs here in his eighty-fourth year, and true, his bowings often resound more as scrapes. But when Casals does sing with the bow, the effect electrifies. The Casals penchant for moaning and groaning a mouthed accompaniment intrudes into the sonic mix, but Schneider’s part remains wonderfully transparent. The valedictory second movement – no less meaningful to composer Dvorak’s love-life than to this venerable acolyte Casals – will endure as fervent testimony of an essentially Nineteenth Century moment in modern musicianship. Casals inserts a raspy edge into his entry into the last movement, and we can hear Schneider’s inflamed support to create an epic document even as a swansong. The heroic enterprise reminds me of a late Maria Callas performance, fraught with insecurities and wobble, but musically intelligent and passionately committed in all points. Let us recall Otakar Dvorak’s commentary on his own father’s concerto: “This impressive ending to the concerto was my father’s tribute and final departure from his last love.”