A man of conscience as well as of astonishing musical versatility, cellist Pablo (Pau) Casals (1876-1973) refused to play in politically oppressive countries. As a consequence, the Axis nations did not hear him during World War Two, and he would not play in his native Spain while Franco remained in power. Furthermore, Casals was gravely disappointed by the failure of the world's leaders to take a sufficiently forward stance against Franco's regime, and so he withdrew almost entirely from public performance during the second half of the 1940s
It was only in 1950, two hundred years since Bach's death, that Casals' colleagues enticed him out of his semi-retirement. If Mohammed wouldn't come to the mountain, then the mountain came to Mohammed – many of the best musicians, both young and old, from Europe and North America, came to the town of Prades, Casals's home since the start of World War Two. French by geography, it remained strongly Catalan in character, like the cellist himself. Now more than fifty years in existence, the Prades Festival still draws musicians and music-lovers from everywhere, particularly those who feel a particular affinity for chamber music.
The Pearl label recently released a series of CDs devoted to performances from Perpignan, another festival of chamber music with which Casals and colleagues were associated in the 1950s. The present box from Music & Arts (thirteen discs for the price of six) is a similarly valuable (but affordable!) souvenir of the Prades Festival. This hefty box is a compilation of Music & Arts CD-688 and CD-689 (both no longer available), with the addition of five more CDs containing six hours of previously unreleased material. Pearl has released performances from Prades as well, but it should be noted that Pearl's material was originally recorded by Columbia Records (usually without an audience present) for later commercial release. To the best of my knowledge, the Music & Arts recordings are actual performances, duplicating nothing released by Columbia and Pearl. The quality of the sound isn' t quite up to studio standards, but nothing gets in the way of the music-making. For me, the most distracting element is the variation in volume and microphoning from work to work. I can live with that. Sometimes applause at the end of the work has been cut off; in other instances, it has been retained. The technical reconstruction on the five new discs is by Maggi Payne.
Performances from the years 1953, '54, '55, '56, '58, '59, and '60 are preserved here. One criticism that might be made of the festivals at Prades and Perpignan during the 1950s is that they weren't too adventurous. Even the young musicians (Isaac Stern and WIlliam Kapell, for example) were traditional players unlikely to upset the apple cart by taking a new or idiosyncratic look at an established classic. By the same token, the repertoire – at least as it has come down to us since then – was strongly middle-European and bound by Bach on one side and by Brahms on the other. This disadvantage – and not everyone will see it so – has a corresponding benefit: the opportunity to make performance-to-performance comparisons in the same work. For example, Columbia's famous commercial recording of Schubert's C-major String Quartet (recorded at Prades in 1952) features Alexander Schneider, Isaac Stern, Milton Katims, Paul Tortelier, and Casals. In the 1953 Prades performance offered here, only Casals is retained; the other performers are Jacob Krachmalnick, Orrea Pernel (violins), Karen Tuttle (viola), and Madeline Foley (cello). This live performance yields nothing to Columbia's, however; the slow movement is even more unbearably intense. The present set even includes two different performances of the same work: the second of Mozart's Piano Quintets. (The 1953 performance includes Tortelier; the 1956 performance substitutes Casals. Note that Music & Arts materials consistently misidentify the 1953 performance as Mozart's "Piano Trio #2.")
There's little that surprising in this set… including its excellence. These are performers who were well-suited to the interplay required to be successful chamber musicians, even though many of them obviously had stellar solo careers. Only advancing age or illness gets in the way of some of the players, although Cortot's technique was fallible even under the best of conditions. Compared to his younger self (the trio recordings with Cortot and Thibaud, particularly), Casals at Prades and Perpignan couldn't be counted on to provide the ultimate in dexterity or tonal beauty. (He was in his seventies and eighties during this period.) Nevertheless, experience counts, and his performances are both wise and caring in a way that they weren't – and could not have been – in the 1920s and 30s.
Musically viable and historically important, Casals – Festivals at Prades is self-recommending to collectors who appreciate old-style musicianship, and the phenomenon of world-class musicians who are willing to put their egos to one side to celebrate music's equalizing power… and the achievements of Pablo Casals himself.
Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle