Friday, June 25, 2010

In review--Casals' Cello

Pablo Casals (1876-1973)
J.S. Bach Suites for Cello Volume 1
Great Recordings of the Century

I first heard about the Catalan cellist Pablo Casals in the Canadian film, 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould. The Glenn Gould character produced a radio documentary where he interviewed the great cellist. Glenn Gould did for J. S. Bach’s keyboard pieces what Pablo Casals had done for Bach’s Cello Suites and that was to remove the stigma of overly academic from Bach’s masterpieces. And in the hands of virtuoso interpreters such as Gould and Casals, the piano sonatas, and Cello Suites took on a new vivacious life. Bach’s music had been reconsidered and accepted by a broader public.

Pablo Casals was born in the Catalan region of Spain (also home of the early music interpreter/performer Jordi Savall and his family), in 1876 and by the age of 5, he showed an aptitude for music. His musical training began with keyboards, but he would later fall in love with the cello. He was performing professionally by the age of 12 when he came across the manuscript of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suites. In the liner notes Casals is quoted, “For twelve years I studied and worked at them every day and I was nearly 25 before I had the courage to play one of them in public. Before I did, no violinist or cellist had ever played the Suite in its entirety.” Another 35 years passed before Casals recorded the Cello Suites (1936).

The digital re-master of Casal’s recording sounds remarkable, given all the years that passed since the studio recording. Casal plays each suite with a different palette of emotions. The combination of Bach’s and Casal’s genius as composer and performer lend itself to a powerful musical experience. I’ve heard Yo-Yo Ma’s Cello Suites recording too, beautiful in its own right, but feels like a mere shadow in comparison to Casal’s vintage recording. And I’m sure that Yo-Yo Ma would agree, not that he’s not a virtuoso in his own right, but that one must bow to the master. Casal pioneered this work, brought it back into the public’s eye and thought of the manuscript as so precious that it took him 12 years of getting it right before he launched its haunting beauty on the public.

I could sit here and string adjectives together to describe the experience of listening to Casal’s Cello Suites. But I would rather you listen to this recording on your own. This barebones session features a man bonding with his cello and with the baroque composer Bach. The performance transcends its early 20th century studio limitations. Perhaps that is why this recording is thought of as a treasure by musicians and Bach aficionados. You can literally hear the years of sweat and toil that went into mastering these suites. Casal plays with bold confidence and he also allows the music to play itself. Listening to this recording feels deeply spiritual and even meditating for hours couldn’t take me to the peaceful place this recording takes me.

In fact, if I could own only one Bach recording, this would be the one for me. One moment it relaxes me, the next it inspires and energizes me, especially the last suite #3 (there are 6 cello suites total), which ends the recording. And I would predict that anyone listening to this recording who wasn’t previously a fan of the cello, will suddenly love the instrument with its lonely cries, breaths, and wistfulness. This is easily one of the best recordings of recording history. And a must-have CD in every collection.


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