PABLO CASALS

1876-1973

Well, Pierre Monteux was going strong on several important podiums when he was 88 — I’m thinking especially of an ecstatic Ravel Sheherazade with Victoria de los Angeles in Amsterdam — but look at Pablo Casals, there’s a “live” recording of his Beethoven Pastoral from the Marlboro Festival taken down when he was 93. To hear the warmth and bounce of the opening movement, a cheerful arrival in Vermont for sure (and isn’t the whole state a kind of pastoral symphony?), then the tiptoeing passion of the Scene by the Brook, and the lilting benediction at symphony’s-end, why this is the work of a conductor, whatever his numerical baggage, who’s young in heart, sound of mind, ready to accept a medal for creativity. We bow before the high originality of Casals’ hip phrasing, casual in the best sense, conversational, the work of what you might call an intellectual frat-boy who, while grunting at his youthful orchestra, surfs over music’s interesting waves, surfing I say because for Casals a musical phrase or line was not a defined, predictable track but something full of surprises.

One’s tempted to say Casals combined the breeziness of Weingartner with the freedom of Max Fiedler and the rough sizzle of Toscanini but that imperfect construct does a disservice to the absolutely inimitable Casals style, even if he held no patent on spontaneity and richness of feeling. It does seem as if he had some divine permission for that almost perpetual undercurrent of Nuance one hears so often in his performances, waiting at the pass to do its dynamic or phraseological thing. A piano, for instance, turned into a forte-cum-diminuendo, this to pounce on a descent of sixteenth notes or somesuch and supply in the process Casals’ trademark immediate warmth. Meanwhile we’re forgetting that this conductor Casals, who had an orchestra in Barcelona long before his fame as maestro of the Prades and Marlboro festivals, was for many years one of the world’s greatest cellists, on the level of Rostropovich or Yo Yo Ma.

From Prades there’s a recording of Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto in which the informality of the phrasing (boasting concurrent finesse, of course) ushers in a long-lined and swinging performance that’s utterly characteristic, as identifiable as the particular jogging style of a runner you see in your neighborhood after a ten years lapse. The slow movement is delicate, spell-like, managing with that easy Casals freedom from the podium to accommodate even Alexander Schneider’s broadly operatic violin solo. Irresistible in the Second Brandenburg from the same source is the quick go, team! trot of the outer movements, with plenty of espressivo between. A Marlboro Brahms First Symphony is landmark Casals with its impetuous and very trumpety crescendo in the introduction; a slow movement populated by regretful oboe, hesitant clarinet, impassioned violins, worried basses; then there’s a gentle and leisurely intermezzo constructed with floating chords, and a finale frenzied on its journey to the pronouncement of that famous solo horn, and broad and sweet when the great horn tune returns to plow through the strings in heartfelt recapitulation mode.

And we have to mention that extraordinary slow movement of Mozart’s G minor Symphony from this Thinking Man’s Marlboro Man: slow, shy, with phrasing that seems to peek around the corner of a phrase. David Blum in his excellent Casals and the Art of Interpretation writes of the “living, contoured movement” such a passionate phrasesmith inevitably sought in the enveloping chain of repeated notes at the beginning of this movement, a mini-eruption here, a hint of retreat there. Meanwhile we know that the tempo is scarcely Mozart’s andante, c. 72 beats to the minute when 84 is common, 96 possible – heavens, Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s bubbling fountain of a 110 works, at two-to-the-bar, like a charm — and this guardedness evokes in its intimate pathos a dirge, but not one gone dead. Sadness here, with light — perhaps that “strange sunlit smile” the novelist Frederick Prokosch found in Mozart and Vermeer. One can paraphrase Andre Malraux too: music “trembling and swaying above its scaffolding” of notes.

Now a visit to a second hand shop has produced a new cache of Casals interpretations, more Mozart symphonies especially, and these performances do nothing to contradict the summation registered so enthusiastically above. In the Linz Symphony (from Puerto Rico) the warm adagio opening almost weeps, the ensuing allegro spiritoso gathers its energies rather than shooting them out of a concert hall barrel. The siciliano poco adagio is Casals-style a courtly dance, and yes, a tad irreverent. Casals’ Linz minuet is a frilly grazioso, the finale not quite the score’s presto. A Marlboro Prague is launched in a confident and glamorous legato and in the suave allegro that follows there’s more ball-tossing among string parts than usual. Frat boys at the beach! The andante of the second movement emerges quasi adagio and could be confused with a love scene — here Casals is obviously in philosophical sync with Daniel Barenboim who’s written that tempo can be like a suitcase: if it’s too small you can’t fit in all the expressivity you want to pack. And then: a finale relaxed, dainty and Imperial – and not quite presto.