Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Historic Reissue of Casals and Serkin Playing Beethoven

This Friday the French-based Praga Classics label will release one of their latest projects to restore historical recordings for reissue. This will be a two-CD album of all of Ludwig van Beethoven’s compositions for keyboard and cello (following Beethoven’s own ordering of the resources). The performers are (in the same ordering) pianist Rudolf Serkin and cellist Pablo Casals. The recordings were originally made in the summers of 1952 and 1953 in the French town of Prades in the Catalan Pyrenees, which had become Casals’ adopted home during his exile from the Spanish Civil War. It is the home of the Prades Festival, which Casals began in 1950. This new album is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com.

Regular readers know that I have given a generous amount of attention to this particular division of Beethoven’s chamber music repertoire. This is due in part to my having had the good fortune to enjoy are rather wide diversity of interpretations of this music in performance on both modern and “historical” instruments. However, my attention to this music has been a fortuitous side-effect of my broader interest in cellists and many of the anthology recordings that have been released of their performances.

I am particularly interested in opportunities to listen to multiple recordings of the same cellist, which is one of the reasons I was drawn to this new release. Where Casals is concerned, his EMI recordings account for all five of the cello sonatas performed with pianist Mieczysław Horszowski. However, while the Serkin sessions all took place in Prades over the course of two successive summers, the Horszowski sessions were more widely distributed across both time and space. The earliest took place in London in 1930 and involved only the Opus 69 (third) sonata in A major. The next session did not take place until 1936, again in London, and consisted only of the first of the Opus 102 sonatas, the fourth cello sonata in C major. The remaining three sonatas were recorded in Paris in 1939 over the course of four days in July. (For the record, all of these sessions were preceded by one in London in 1927 at which Casals recorded the WoO46 “Bei Männern” variations with Alfred Cortot.)

Last month this site discussed how cellist Pierre Fournier had recorded the entire Beethoven canon twice for Deutsche Grammophon, first in 1959 with Friedrich Gulda, who was about 25 years his junior, and then in 1968 with Wilhelm Kempff, who was about twenty years his senior. Horszowski and Serkin were only about ten years apart, Serkin being the younger; and Casals was their senior by roughly a quarter century. In this case the major shift in context involved Casals himself, recording most of the first set while in refuge from the Spanish Civil War and the second during the somewhat more peaceful times following the end of the Second World War.

However, if one were to conduct a blind test for identifying which recordings came from which decade, my guess is that only those who had solidly internalized the recordings from both sessions would be able to classify them correctly. The reason is that the key attribute that stands out in Casals’ approach to Beethoven is the vigor of his expressiveness. After all, the sonatas themselves span a wide interval in the chronology of Beethoven’s life; yet there is a consistency of imaginative playfulness that pervades the entire canon. Indeed, that playfulness may have sustained Casals’ spirits in the face of his having to leave Spain in the Thirties, while, at the same time, the impact would have been just as uplifting when all of Western Europe was at peace but also under the cloud of the Cold War.

As a result I would be hard pressed to say that I prefer one Casals set of performances to the other. I am glad that he was able to include performances of the variations in his sessions with Serkin, but the sonatas make for the primary reason for listening to either of these collections. My own “bottom line” is that I am glad that I have both of them and am likely to be devoting just as much time to listening to one as to considering the other. More important is how these sonatas reveal that Beethoven never let go of his sense of play, and we can all do with more of such an upbeat approach to making music.

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