Even in his eighties, Casals demonstrated his indomitable spirit, performing Beethoven with the immediacy and zest of new discovery.
When recording the F major Sonata, Op. 5 No. 1 and Ghost Trio at his Prades Festival in the summer of 1961, Casals was already approaching his eighty-fifth birthday. He was only three years younger when performing all the other works in this three-disc set before a live audience in the Beethovenhaus in Bonn. And surely nothing better demonstrates his indomitable spirit than that first sonata with Wilhelm Kempff, then 65, as partner. Both artists exult in its melodic buoyancy, its surprises of key, its pungent sforzandos and its close-knit repartee; they bring up everything with theRead more immediacy and zest of new discovery. I also felt that acoustics and balance were more favourable to the cello here. In the three sonatas recorded with the equally sympathetic 66-year-old Horszowski, I sometimes thought the piano too forwardly placed—as for instance in the fugal finale of the late D major Sonata, the only place where Casals himself sounds just a little tired, or perhaps less than wholly committed. Predictably, the unforgettable playing in this work comes in the slow movement, where both artists create an atmosphere of rapt, intimate spirituality almost impossible to describe in words. The G minor Sonata's slow introduction is another example of the quite extraordinary plangency Casals could draw from his instrument in the mezza voce range—and this with often almost vibrato-free purity of line.
As for the three trios included, Horszowski is again at the piano in the Archduke and the early C minor work. In the Ghost, however, Casals and Sandor Vegh are joined by Karl Engel. From the insert-notes we learn that the Archduke was in Casals's repertoire for some 60 years, and that he had already recorded it with Thibaud and Cortot in 1928 as well as with Schneider and Istomin for American Columbia in 1951 before this last Beethovenhaus performance. Though unable to lay my hands on either of the two earlier versions, I chanced to have [what was at the time] the catalogue's newest set of Beethoven's piano trios at my side, from the Fontenay Trio, for comparison. And the most obvious difference of approach is tempo. In every movement without exception in all three works, Casals and his colleagues, not being of the jet age, are less inclined to hurry. Perhaps they are a little too slow in the Archduke's slow movement for its ma pero con moto qualifying the Andante cantabile marking, but how profoundly felt it all is, not least the sublime coda. The Scherzo certainly emerges a little less on its toes, a little more elderly, in fact, from the older team, who I think just occasionally over-relax tension in the middle of the opening movement and in the finale. But, again, what mellowness of phrasing they offer, and what intuitive single-mindedness of ensemble. The older players' reading of the early C minor work is considerably less urgent and forceful, yet no less eloquent in its own way—especially, of course, the variations of the Andante cantabile. In these Beethovenhaus recordings there's a plumminess in the actual sound-quality, very different from the bright clarity of the Fontenay reproduction. But what old-world warmth it has in compensation.
Finally, the Ghost. Here Casals and Vegh haunt your memory with their spectral sotto voce in the very slow but finely sustained Largo, even if a little more weight from the cellist would not have come amiss when taking over the laden opening motif in this movement's two all-important climactic crescendos. Firmly reined in by Engel, both flanking movements have tremendous drive. I'll end by adding that even if not told who the cellist was throughout these three discs, you'd probably guess at once: without all those little grunts and gasps and groans at moments of heightened intensity, Casals would not have been Casals.