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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 / BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by Haydn (Casals) (1927, 1929)
Along with Casals’ 1927 London Symphony disc of Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture (Naxos Historical 8.110976), these recordings – the Beethoven Symphony No. 1 is particularly rare – constitute the cellist’s complete pre-war recordings as a conductor. The Barcelona sessions made with Casals’ own orchestra, formed in 1919, were set down in a concentrated period of work over five days in early July 1929. They are notable for their unfussy and direct approach to Beethoven that reveal the music in honest, unvarnished and expressive terms. In Brahms’ Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, recorded just a few weeks before Casals’ 51st birthday, the London Symphony Orchestra plays with beauty of sound, excellent ensemble and characterful wind solos. Casals’ temperate direction stresses the lyrical and eloquent aspects of Brahms’ writing.
By David Denton
Great Conductors: Pablo Casals (1876-1973)
Beethoven • Brahms
The musician internationally known as Pablo Casals was born in Vendrell, Catalonia, as Pau Carles Salvador Casals i Defilló. Catalan Casals may have been, but he was a citizen of the world and remains fondly remembered by those who studied and worked with him and much admired as a musician. Casals's father was an organist and choirmaster and gave his son musical instruction at a very early age. The infant Pablo took to playing instruments like the proverbial duck to water, but it was not until he had reached the age of eleven that he became aware of his true calling. It was then that he encountered the cello for the very first time, the instrument that he was to become synonymous with – as a concerto soloist, chamber-music practitioner and teacher. He was immediately enrolled into a leading music school in Barcelona and made enormous progress – he gave a recital at the age of fourteen and further studies became possible through royal patronage. Like many musicians destined for solo careers, Casals gained experience (and a little money) through playing in theatre and opera orchestras; in Casals's case this was in Paris and Barcelona, and in the latter city he also accepted a teaching position at the Escuela Municipal de Música. In 1897 he made his concerto début at a concert with the Madrid Symphony Orchestra.
Casals then made appearances as a cellist in London, Paris and the Netherlands, and, in the first year of the twentieth century, 1901, he toured the United States. This was followed by a trip to South America and, in 1904, he was invited to appear at the White House to play for President Theodore Roosevelt. (This was not the last time that Casals would perform in front of the President of the United States. In 1961 he played for Kennedy.) In 1905, in Paris, Casals formed a celebrated trio with the violinist Jacques Thibaud and pianist Alfred Cortot. (Fine examples of their highly regarded recordings, made in the 1920s, music by Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert, can be found on Naxos Historical 8.110188.) In the 1930s Casals recorded J.S. Bach's six Suites for unaccompanied cello, which rehabilitated the music: despite the copious recorded versions that have subsequently appeared, it is Casals's interpretations that continue to receive praise for their integrity and intensity. Such integrity also informed Casals's political leanings; in 1939, following the Spanish Civil War, he went into voluntary exile from Franco's regime, vowing not to return until democracy was restored. It was a vow he kept.
It was the Civil War in 1936 that caused the demise of the Barcelona-based Orquesta Pau Casals, which Casals had formed in 1919 and which reflected his growing interest in conducting. Conducting was an activity that continued to occupy him in later life, too; recordings exist of his post-Second World War activities in this rôle. The recordings on this Naxos Historical release were all made in the late-1920s and include two Beethoven symphonies, recorded when Casals was 52, which were set down, along with The Ruins of Athens Overture (which is here given a fleet and dramatic rendition), in a concentrated period of work over five days in early July 1929.
The recordings that Casals made as a septuagenarian and octogenarian (in the 1950s and 1960s) are usually time-taken affairs, maybe suggesting a wise old man. These Barcelona recordings, made when Casals was in middle age, can also be stately in demeanour. In the case of Symphony No. 1, moderate tempos should not be equated to the performance lacking virility (and these are 'real' performances – editing was not a luxury that could be fallen back on). Casals and his hard-working players bring a noble spirit responding to Beethoven's incisive and songful writing. It is interesting to note Casals's repeat scheme. Exposition repeats are omitted in the outer movements, but that in the Andante cantabile con moto second movement is observed. This may have something to do with the playing-times of the 78-rpm shellac discs of the era, one side capable of holding around four minutes of music. In this second movement Casals stresses its cantabile nature. By contrast the Minuet (effectively a Scherzo) has real impetuosity, the Trio offering no let up, the Barcelona musicians displaying nimbleness and tenacity, a vigour that is maintained through the energetic finale.
Symphony No. 4 begins in pensive mood, a dawn-like atmosphere (Adagio) brushed aside by the light and animation of a new day (Allegro vivace). Casals is a direct interpreter of Beethoven's music, his lack of fuss gives the music freshness and an ink-still-wet quality; the playing may not be the last word in virtuosity or pristine ensemble, but there is a commitment and belief that shines on behalf of the music. Casals invests the second movement Adagio with forward tread and a concentration of line that does not forgo the music's tenderness; in this account such a quality is maybe best exemplified by the clarinettist's sensitive playing. The taking of repeats is again inconsistent. The one in the first movement is omitted while the one in the finale is observed. The Minuet (again, this is really a Scherzo) is decidedly short on repetition although at least the ABABA shape is preserved. In the finale, Casals typically aims for musical 'truth', driving his players along, but is considerate, too, such as the slowing he makes at 4'03" to accommodate the bassoon solo.
To conclude this release is Brahms's Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, which is sometimes referred to as Variations on a Theme by Haydn, for the simple reason that the chorale Brahms used for his commentaries was believed to have been composed by Franz Joseph Haydn. Casals recorded Brahms's work in London, in the Queen's Hall (which was destroyed by bombing during World War II), just a few weeks before his 51st birthday (he was born on 29 December). In 1927 London was not so awash with orchestras as it is today: the BBC Symphony (1930), London Philharmonic (1932), Philharmonia (1945) and Royal Philharmonic (1946) were not yet founded. There were though the (now defunct) Royal Albert Hall and Queen's Hall orchestras. In Brahms's Variations, the London Symphony Orchestra (founded in 1904) reveals a more honed response than does Casals's own Orchestra in Barcelona. The orchestra plays with beauty of sound, excellent ensemble and characterful wind solos. Casals's temperate direction stresses the lyrical and eloquent aspects of Brahms's writing. If some tempos seem too moderate, then there is much that is expressive and, despite the start-stop nature of recording back then, over the twenty-minute span this performance takes, there is a real feeling of integration across the whole.
These recordings, along with Casals' 1927 London Symphony disc of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture (on Naxos Historical 8.110976), constitute the cellist's complete pre-war recordings as a conductor. The present transfers were made from British HMV shellacs for the Beethoven items and a late prewar Victor Black Label set (G-16) for the Brahms. The original recordings are inherently rather noisy even on the best copies, with occasional bursts of noise in the Barcelona sides and an overall high level of crackle in the London matrices that even the relatively quiet American pressings could not completely overcome.
The Beethoven First is a particularly rare set, as it was soon eclipsed in the HMV catalog by Mengelberg's New York recording, made six months later. Neither of the Beethoven sets were issued on quiet Victor 78 rpm pressings, although the Fourth was rather noisily dubbed onto an early 33 1/3 Victor "Program Transcription" record.
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21
Recorded 3, 6 and 8 July 1929 in the Olympia Theatre, Barcelona
Matrix nos.: CJ 2343-5, 2344-4, 2346-1, 2347-2, 2360-3 and 2361-1
First issued on HMV D 1729 through 1731
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60
Recorded 4-5 July 1929 in the Olympia Theatre, Barcelona
Matrix nos.: CJ 2352-2, 2353-3, 2354-2, 2355-1, 2356-1, 2358-1 and 2359-1
First issued on HMV D 1725 through 1728
BEETHOVEN: The Ruins of Athens, Op. 113 – Overture
Recorded 8 July 1929 in the Olympia Theatre, Barcelona
Matrix no.: CJ 2362-1
First issued on HMV D 1728
BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by J. Haydn, Op 56a 'St. Antoni Chorale'
Recorded 6 December 1927 in Queen's Hall, London
Matrix nos.: CR 1612-2, 1613-1A, 1614-1, 1615-1A, 1616-1A and 1617-1A
First issued on HMV D 1376 to 1378
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BEETHOVEN: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 / BRAHMS: Varia...