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ClassicsOnline Home » BEETHOVEN / BRAHMS: Cello Sonatas (Casals) (1930-1939)
By Tony Haywood
Although the Catalan cellist Pau, or Pablo, Casals became best known for reviving the six solo Suites by Bach, he might well have been born to play Beethoven, so well was his temperament suited to the composers music. The extreme contrasts, the heightened drama, the explosive rhythms, the inner tensions, the brooding depths, all found their counterparts in Casals colossal personality, and had Beethoven known Casals, he would undoubtedly have written more slow movements for the cello. Sadly, the cellists of his time were not particularly good at sustaining a proper legato tone, so Beethoven contented himself with just one true Adagio movement in all his five cello sonatas. For Casals, on the other hand, a singing legato was essential. His uniquely soulful legato was just one of the weapons with which he attacked the rather complacent cello playing establishment of his youth and changed our conception of the instrument for ever.
Casals was born on 29th December 1876 in Vendrell, a little town 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 end-pin 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 the help of Albéniz moved to Madrid, found a patron and became Queen Maria Cristinas favourite musician, studying at the Conservatory with Tomas Bretón and Jesus de Monasterio. He made his Madrid orchestral début with Lalos 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 the greatest cellist. 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 working on the Bach Suites for a dozen years, he began playing them in public in the early years of the twentieth century, often programming one alongside a concerto. In 1919 he organised the Orquestra Pau Casals in Barcelona and in 1931 conducted it in Beethovens Ninth Symphony to mark the birth of the Spanish Republic. The civil war, however, and the Fascist victory caused a rift in Casals life and career. A man of deep principle who refused to play in Hitlers Germany, he was implacably opposed to Francos 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 Haydns Concerto in D major two-thirds done. From 1950, however, 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 mothers 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.
Pablo Casals met the pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski (1892-1993) in Milan in 1906 and the Polish prodigy, some fifteen years younger, became a regular visitor at the cellists Paris home. They did not play together in public, however, until the late 1920s and did not make their first records as a duo until another decade had gone by. Horszowski was a natural chamber music player and although he was not the ideal partner for Casals, in that he worked on a relatively small scale, he was such a consummate artist that the partnership worked. When Casals started playing and recording again in the 1950s, the two continued working together and more recordings were made, including a wonderful Schubert E flat Trio with Alexander Schneider as violinist. The three men even appeared together in a recital at the White House before President Kennedy. Both Casals and Horszowski lived extremely long lives, Casals almost reaching a century and the pianist actually passing that magic mark. Both of them carried on playing too long and so it is salutary to travel back in the Naxos time-machine and hear them when each was still at his peak. Unfortunately HMV did not contemplate recording a complete cycle of Beethovens Cello Sonatas with Casals until quite late in the day. Only the most popular sonata, the Sonata in A major, Op.69, was at first considered; and in 1930 Casals recorded it with the Viennese accompanist Otto Schulhof. The pianist acquits himself well enough he had, after all, given concerts with major artists apart from Casals, including Adolf Busch but even the balance engineer treats him like an accompanist rather than a full partner. The result is inevitably a little one-sided and yet Casals playing is so sovereign that he carries the day. The difference when Horszowski comes on the scene in 1936, for the Cello Sonata in C major, is palpable. Suddenly the piano phrases come alive and the rhythms are full of zest. When we get to the three recordings of 1939, made in Paris, the partnership is in dazzling form. The two early sonatas sound as if they are being played by adolescents, so irresistible is the rhythmic lift in places, as, for example, in the finale of the Sonata in F major, but the full experience of the duo is brought to bear on the great Sonata in D major, with its haunting Adagio con molto sentimento daffetto.
Had the war not intervened, we might have had a re-recording of the Sonata in A major with Horszowski. We might even have been granted a Casals recording of Brahmss First Sonata one had been made by Piatigorsky and Rubinstein but by this time HMV was not averse to re-recording popular repertoire. As it is, we must be content with the Second Sonata in F major. Here the partnership with Horszowski is at its most unequal, in terms of sheer size, but the rhythmic foundation is so sure in all four movements and the interplay between the two artists is so absorbing that such questions hardly matter. One suspects that what one is hearing is Casals interpretation, but Horszowski keeps himself in the picture by sheer wizardry and in the first two movements the players sound so spontaneous that they could be making up the music as they go along. The obvious trap in this sonata is that if the musicians hurl themselves too fervently into the stormy scherzo, the finale will seem something of an anti-climax. Casals and Horszowski judge it pretty well and typically Casals manages to dig into his phrases in the Allegro molto so that it emerges with more gravitas than usual. It is a masterly example of his interpretative intuition. We even have an encore, a cello arrangement of the famous Beethoven Minuet in G for piano, which originally took up the sixth side in the set of 78rpm discs containing the Sonata in A major.
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