Pablo Casals: the Philips Legacy, Decca Eloquence ELQ4842348, 7 cds (limited edition), c£35.00 consists mainly of live vintage stereo recordings of Beethoven sonatas and piano trios given at the Beethoven House, Bonn. When I first heard the consistently insightful but occasionally frail account of the Ghost Trio shared between the senior gents (or should I say giants) Casals, violinist Sándor Végh and pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski I wondered whether they might be tempting providence (Casals was 81 at the time), even more so a performance of the Trio from three years later (with Karl Engel replacing Horszowski) though there’s barely a whisker between them in terms of energy.
This is vintage musicianship in the truest sense of the term, a sharing of profound secrets reaching as far as Schubert’s great C major Quintet (where Casals joins the Végh Quartet), Various Beethoven cello sonatas with Horszowski and Wilhelm Kempff and the Piano Trios Opp. 1 No. 3 and 97 (‘Archduke’) feature whispered inflections filled with musical meaning. A coupling of Haydn’s 2nd Cello Concerto and Boccherini’s Concerto in B flat where Casals conducts for Maurice Gendron returns us to the sort of tonally mellow and richly expressive cello playing we regularly hear on recordings by Pierre Fournier and Emanuel Feuermann and the like.
But perhaps the set’s most remarkable disc is the sixth, which opens with Fauré’s heart-warming Elégie arranged for ten cellists with orchestra (the line-up including such great players as Paul Bazelaire, Maurice Maréchal and Gaspard Cassadó) – first a revealing 25-minute rehearsal sequence followed by a remarkably intense concert performance, then an ensemble of 102 cellists offers us two contrasted pieces by Casals himself.
And yet the set’s very last track upstages quantity for added quality and a unique performance of the most desolate movement from Bach’s solo cello suites, the Fifth’s ‘Sarabande’. True, there are superficial flaws, such as Casals’s groaning and his audible pressing on the instrument’s fingerboard. But beyond these minor imperfections – and they are minor – a performance emerges that is so personal, so sublimely beautiful, almost prayerful I’d say (God weeping for the sins of man?) that to follow it with any of the pristine rivals currently available – there are scores of them to choose from – would seem tantamount to an insult. The whole set is remarkable, but this one track makes it impossible to miss. Tully Potter’s annotations are up to his usual high standard.