INKPOT — Casals and Thibaud play Brahms, Dvorak double and cello concerti – conductors Cortot and Szell – NAXOS
The Thibaud-Casals-Cortot Trio
Double Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op. 102
Pablo Casals, cello / Jacques Thibaud, violin
Pablo Casals Orchestra of Barcelona
Alfred Cortot, conductor
Recorded: May 1929
Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104
Pablo Casals, cello
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
George Szell, conductor
Recorded: April 1937
Mark Obert-Thorn, producer and audio restoration engineer
super bargain price
by Derek Lim
Several transfers exist of these recordings, the most readily available being the EMI References release, but this latest one by Mark Obert-Thorne are easily the best, the sound quality of the recordings belying their age. The Dvorak cello concerto, previously coupled with the Elgar, also featuring Pablo Casals, and the Bruch Kol Nidrei, released by Naxos on the third volume of transcriptions and encores by Casals and reviewed here, had extremely good engineering for its time. The sound quality of the Brahms is strident and less detailed in comparison but the performance is reward in itself for the persevering collector.
The performances themselves are classics of the gramophone. Brahms’ double concerto for violin, cello and orchestra is a work that can come off imbalanced; it takes something special to balance the triumvirate. Heifetz and Piatigorsky had that special connection while playing, so did Oistrakh and Rostropovich. It goes without saying that Casals and Thibaud had it too, but what completes the circle is the presence of Alfred Cortot on the podium.
Cortot was a conductor of no little talent, a facet of him that was obscured by his far greater fame as a pianist. He coaxes the Pablo Casals Orchestra of Barcelona into an invigourating accompaniment, setting the framework for the chamber music-like performance between the two soloists. His approach to conducting is sensitive to the protagonists and flexible in terms of tempi and dynamics.
The cellist’s solo cadenza at the start is an eloquent marvel in phrasing in itself, establishing himself firmly from the outset. The ensuing double cadenza sets the tone for the rest of the concerto. A performance of the Brahms double can either play up on the contrasts between the soloists or emphasize their similarities. Here Jacques Thibaud’s refined tone acts as a foil to Pablo Casals’ rough-and-ready playing and together they create a unique drama, the duo playing off each other conversationally. Their ensemble is impeccable while maintaining individual character in their contributions. A strong sense of structure and logic informs this performance of the concerto; the result is a totally absorbing account of the first movement, a problematic one that in other’s interpretations sometimes comes off as rambling.
The second movement is beautifully rendered, though it may be a little old-fashioned sounding for some tastes. Thibaud’s ingratiating playing is full of little slides, which may put some off, but it is so tastefully done. Casals and Thibaud play hand-in-glove in this movement, each moderating his tone to match the other’s. And despite all the distortion that even Mark Obert-Thorne couldn’t get rid of, how beautiful the orchestra sounds. Cortot’s conducting is suave and involved, cushioning the proceedings. The total effect one is left with is something more of a sweet nostalgia shared by a couple who have been through much together than the general blanket “autumnal” description given to Brahms’ music.
The finale is a veritable feu d’joie. Casals’ tone comes off sounding better here than Thibaud, which can sound wiry (certainly no fault of his). The protagonists make less of a meal of the “gypsy” character of the music than most others, but it is by no means any less riveting for that. I love how naturally the music breathes. Casals and Thibaud are not without their moments of insecure intonation, but when they sing together in the romantic tunes that this permeate this last movement, like a tenor and his soprano, all is forgiven. What a pity that recording technology was still in its developing stages then.
Some degree of surface noise is still present in the Dvorak, but the ear quickly adapts; the sound is eminently listenable. The interpretation on the other hand…! Few have surpassed Szell and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in their sensitive reading of this music which courses through their blood (though for a searingly exciting performance one should certainly check out Pierre Fournier, “live” with Hermann Scherchen). They certainly don’t go out of their way to make major “statements” with the music unlike several “big name” conductors since, and therein lies the beauty of it – no wallowing in the big tunes here. What comes across so vividly is the honesty and sincerity of the music-making and Casals’ poetic and eloquent performance of the solo part. So many recordings have been made of the concerto since, but the fact that this recording still has something to offer speaks volumes.
This disc is well worth the asking price and no-one vaguely in these stellar performers, or this repertoire should hesitate. Three cheers to Obert-Thorne for these brand-new transfers and to Naxos for putting out the disc so inexpensively.
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