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Casals as conductor

Beethoven Symphonies Nos 1 and 4; Overture Ruins of Athens
Brahms St Antoni Variations

Pablo Casals Orchestra of Barcelona (Beethoven), LSO (Brahms) / Casals

Recorded 1927

Naxos Historical 8.111262

This CD offers almost all Casals’ pre-war recordings as a conductor (the other, Coriolan, is also on Naxos Historical.) as a ‘cellist, Casals was intense and fiery, as a conductor, his interpretations are surprisingly plain and relaxed. The Beethoven is full of natural musicality, the Brahms is essentially sunny, not unlike the later Sir Adrian Boult’s recording with the same orchestra.

There are certainly moments when the modern listener is struck by the change of taste – most conductors would now play the finale of No 4 in a much livelier way, or make more of the articulation a the beginning of the No 1 scherzo. Likewise, the combination of relatively loose phrasing and very pronounced rubato that marks most of the Brahms variations, notably the first few, would be frowned on today. So historically, this is a recording of great interest.

Mark Obert-Thorn of course has a redoubtable reputation as a producer and engineer of these transfers. To my untutored ear, he is always particularly successful in finding that ‘sweet spot’ within the sound envelope which preserves the greatest amount of signal and manages to eliminate the greatest amount of the noise. It is obvious that the fundamental choice is between removing the hiss and the treble information with it, or keeping both. In general, string sounds are especially tricky to transfer, but here, the vividness and bloom even of such old recordings on originally noisy 78s is striking. Only at the end of the Brahms (at the end of an over-long 78 side?) do we hear any troubling constriction.

Highly recommended to all those interested in historic recordings.

Ying Chang