Listening to Pablo Casals Playing Bach Is Nothing Short of a Miracle

Amir Mandel
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Pablo Casals, 84-year-old world renowned cellist, is shown at the White House Diplomatic Reception Room in Washington, D.C., Nov. 11, 1961.
Pablo Casals, 84-year-old world renowned cellist, is shown at the White House Diplomatic Reception Room in Washington, D.C., Nov. 11, 1961.Credit: AP
Amir Mandel

The Catalonian cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973) is famous for transforming the Bach cello suites into living works of art; before 1900 they were thought of as exercises. A young Casals came across the sheet music in a second-hand store in Barcelona and made the suites a central part of his repertoire. But he did not record them until he was in his sixties – in Paris and London, between 1936 and 1939. It was these recordings that brought the suites renown, and they became a source of inspiration for hundreds of cellists who later made their own recordings of them.

However, until recently, it was hard to enjoy Casals’ interpretations fully, or even to know how they actually sounded, due to degraded sound quality. The restored version that has been released in Japan (I purchased it as a pair of CDs in super-audio format) solves this problem, and accomplishes a small sonic and musical miracle.

To understand just how this restoration process was achieved, one has to be able to read Japanese, since the album notes do not come in other languages. What the ear discovers, though, is a full and very pleasing and vital cello sound, one that does not seem to come from an 80-year-old recording.

The freshness of the interpretation is an even bigger surprise. Casals plays in short, clean lines, and with a sound that has very little ornamentation and vibrato. It has a distinctive character, but at the same time calls to mind very contemporary interpretations, more so than the “romantic” interpretations that were common in the 1960s and ‘70s. This album is at once a historical artifact and a thrilling musical experience.

The legendary Schnabel

Another double album, of nine Beethoven piano sonatas performed by Artur Schnabel, which has been similarly restored, does not achieve the same effect. Somewhat like Casals, Schnabel (1882-1951) was seen as a source of inspiration for nearly all of the Beethoven performers who came after him. The music critic Harold Schonberg called him “the man who invented Beethoven.” But the diligent sound experts who set to restoring this recording apparently didn’t have as good an original to start with as with the Casals recording. To judge by the sound of it, the sources used were records, and although fine restoration work has been done, the sound of the piano is still somewhat dull, and there is a fair amount of annoying background noise.

Still, there are some lovely moments here – transitions from very quiet to very dramatic passages, mysterious shadings, complicated structures made clear. Schnabel’s weaknesses are also apparent, and could not be fixed with the technology available in those days – a number of errors, as well as missed notes that got lost in the heat of the rapid and exhilarating playing.

It is interesting to listen to this album as a way of getting closer to the legendary Schnabel with a sound that is a little better than was previously available. There are many beautiful sections, like the Sonata Opus 90; the second movement of Opus 79; the restraint in the Appassionata and the final, marvelous movement of the last sonata. But in the main, this album is mostly interesting for its historical value, and as a tribute to a great pianist of the past. To really listen to the Beethoven sonatas, I would first turn to the recordings of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Richard Goode, Emil Gilels or Friedrich Gulda.