Sunday, April 8, 2012

Casals Original Jacket Collection

Pablo Casals, The Original Jacket Collection (Sony 88697656902)

Sony has issued several boxed sets in its Original Jacket Collection series. The idea is nice. Each is a boxed set of reissues of well-known recordings by prominent artists, with the individual discs packaged in facsimiles of the original vinyl sleeves, including the original liner notes (although many purchasers will find that, even with their bifocals on, they are reaching for their magnifying glass). In addition to this set I greatly enjoyed the set of Bruno Walter conducting Mahler, Wagner, and Bruckner.

It is not clear whether there has been any significant remastering in this collection. The rather sketchy leaflet identifies Philip Nedel as the remaster, but that is all the information we are given. This is particularly puzzling, since Sony have already re-released (re-re-released?) much of the material in this set in their Pablo Casals edition. On the face of it, this boxed set may seem a better bargain than buying individual reissues in the Pablo Casals edition – at the price I paid the set came out at less than $3 per disc. On the other hand, though, the discs in the Pablo Casals edition (itself a budget-priced series) are typically twice as long as the ones in this set, where each LP is given its own CD. For what it’s worth, I sampled across the two releases and could not detect any meaningful difference in sound quality (although I lay no claim to golden ears).

In any event, the music-making is wonderful and comes primarily from the Prades and Perpignan festivals in the 1950s (studio rather than live performances). The first 2 discs feature Bach’s 3 sonatas for Harpsichord and Viola da Gamba (BVW 1027-29), played with Paul Baumgartner at the piano. All 3 sonatas are highly expressive and Casals brings to them the same intensity that he brings to the better known Suites. The second disc is filled out with Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue and the F major Italian Concerto, both played by Rudolf Serkin – good performances both, but probably not rising to the top of a very crowded market.

For me the highlight of the collection is the complete cycle of Beethoven cello sonatas with Rudolf Serkin at the piano –Casals’s second studio recording of the complete cycle (the first was made in the 1930s with Otto Schulhof and Mieczyslaw Horzowski). Particular highlights are the Adagio in the 5th Sonata (Op. 102 no. 2) and the extraordinarily long first movement (21 minutes!) from the early 2nd sonata (Op. 5 no. 2). The effortless mastery of Casals and Serkin is particularly evidenced in the movements that have transitions from Adagio introductions – the Allegro emerges organically from the slow introduction, without a hint of awkwardness or discontinuity.

The set features 3 string trios – Beethoven’s Archduke (Op.97), the Schubert B flat major Trio (D898), and Brahms’s Trio No. 1 (Op. 8). The first two have Eugene Istomin at the piano and the violin of Alexander Schneider. Isaac Stern is the violinist and Myra Hess the pianist for the Brahms. The Beethoven and Schubert recordings are justly celebrated. The Brahms performance is perhaps less well known, but beautifully played. Casals is a superlative chamber musician and his collaborators here are of the highest quality.

The two relative outliers in this collection are the famous White House concert – which stands out because of its location (obviously!), but also its date (1961, whereas most of the other performances date back from the early 1950s). Here Casals is joined by long-time partners Schneider and Horszowski in Mendelssohn’s D minor String Trio (Op. 49) and pieces by Couperin and Schumann (as well as 1 of 2 recordings in this collection of Casals’s own Song of the Birds). On a musical level, however, this disc stands with the others in displaying the organic unity of Casals’s ensemble playing.

The real outlier to me is the 1953 recording of Schumann’s Cello Concerto – a wonderful recording of a wonderful piece, but it breaks the flow of a collection focused on the delicacy of Casals chamber musicianship and his ability to meld a whole that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. The only connection that I can see with the other 9 discs is that it was recorded at Prades with the Prades festival orchestra.

Nonetheless, the fact that the only negative thing I can find to say about this collection is that it includes a great recording of Schumann’s Cello Concerto should speak volumes. This is a wonderful collection and the sound quality is good enough for many of the performances to be signature recordings that can stand against any.