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Touring Alaska on vacation last summer, in constant awe of the seemingly boundless display of spectacular natural beauty, it seemed appropriate to reflect on the life and art of Pablo Casals (1876-1973). Like the vast, unsullied Alaskan scenery, Casals was a pure force of nature — towering and uncompromising. Casals’ significance far transcended his musicianship, phenomenal though it was. In the words of Thomas Mann’s eloquent tribute, his “proud, utterly incorruptible integrity … purifies and elevates our conception of the artist” and was “the symbol of the indissoluble union of art and morality.” Or as Casals put it more humbly: “A musician is also a man, and more important than his music is his attitude to life.” The man who would become the world’s greatest cellist never heard one until age 11. By then, he was an accomplished singer, pianist, violinist, and (once his feet could reach the pedals) organist. When Casals finally heard a cello in a trio visiting his remote Catalan village, its sound stirred him as human and profound. Although his father, the local church organist, wanted Pablo to become a carpenter, his mother (an ardent pacifist who sent her other son into exile to avoid military service) encouraged him to follow his destiny to become a musician. Until Casals, the cello was deemed unsuitable for sensitive displays of emotion and was typically relegated to a role of accompaniment (as when chugging along with Baroque music). “Proper” technique of the time stemmed from strict training in which a student was made to hold a book under his bowing arm to restrict movement and to produce an unvarying tone. From his earliest lessons, Casals rebelled and resolved to liberate the cello from its chaste subordinate chore. Casals revolutionized bowing technique by using only portions rather than the entire expanse of the bow, lifting it from the strings and shading the tonal quality to emphasize the musical essence. He also pioneered percussive fingering (stopping the strings decisively rather than sliding the whole hand between notes), expressive intonation (varying the tuning according to harmonic demands), rhythmic vigor, varied attacks, and decisive accentuation. His innovations bred interpretations of a compelling inner logic and an instinctive feeling for structure and meaning. Casals created a sense of style. Casals’ first recordings (now on Biddulph 141-143) wouldn’t be made until 1915, but fully reflect the beauty and soul of his playing three decades earlier. Although limited to four-minute encores and abridgements, they consistently suggest the fullness and power of his tone, rhythmic thrust, and expressivity. Unfortunately, comparison with the constrained artistry of his predecessors is difficult, since Casals’ influence predated the advent of recording and spread so rapidly that it colored the technique and outlook of all his contemporaries (and most predecessors) by the time they cut their first 78s. Curiously, given his fame, Casals made no further records until 1926, when he cut several dozen sides for Victor (again, all short pieces), now collected on Biddulph 017 or Naxos 110972. Casals landed his first professional job at the Caf� Tost in Barcelona. Soon, he began to devote one night each week to classical music, to which he was becoming increasingly attracted. Among patrons drawn to this curiosity was Isaac Albeniz, one of Spain’s most famous composers and pianists. Swept away by Casals’ talent, he brought the boy to Madrid and arranged royal patronage, which provided an education, support, and exposure to other arts. (Accepting regal favors while maintaining his credentials as a man of the people was but one of the complexities and seeming contradictions in Casals’ life; another was his cruel neglect of his first wife, notwithstanding extreme devotion to his second.) During his stint at the caf�, an event occurred that would transform not only his own life but also the entire course of music appreciation. During one of his father’s visits, they stopped in an old shop in search of scores to expand the repertoire for his classical nights. As Casals later recalled in a 1970 memoir, he “came upon a sheaf of pages crumbled and discolored with age” — the six unaccompanied cello suites by Johann Sebastian Bach, written around 1720 and completely forgotten — Casals’ music teachers hadn’t even heard of them. Casals was staggered by the “magic and mystery” of such rich writing for his instrument. “All I could do was stare at the pages and caress them. … I hurried home, clutching the suites as if they were the crown jewels. … I read and reread them. I was thirteen at the time, but for the following eighty years the wonder of my discovery has continued to grow on me. Those suites opened up a whole new world. I began playing them with indescribable excitement. They became my most cherished music. I studied and worked at them every day for the next twelve years.” Once Casals did play them in public he launched a full-scale reassessment of Bach. Although they had been dismissed as cold, academic exercises, Casals plumbed their depths and poured out radiant poetry. Casals cut the suites in four sessions from 1936 to 1939. They remain one of the touchstones of recording (now on Naxos 110905-6). Although he had been playing the music for nearly a half-century and was at the height of his powers, his renditions at first can disappoint, as they seem full of “errors.” Yet Casals paints a complex and intensely human portrait of Bach, flaws and all, enlivened with a huge variety of tone, volume, rhythm, tempo, and expression, ranging from hushed, pensive probity to rough, lusty vigor. (Although Casals never rerecorded the suites in the studio, we do have a 1950s concert of the Third Suite that better displays the extraordinary color of his playing, its expressive intensity ranging from a soft soothing whine to furiously powerful percussive attacks.) Casals worshipped Bach as the supreme god of music, a creator of unmatched diversity and profundity, and began each day by playing Bach preludes and fugues on the piano. His impassioned playing of the suites exemplifies his attitude toward performing older music. Casals was aware of scholars’ efforts to reconstruct baroque instruments and techniques, and considered their work interesting but fundamentally misguided experimentation. (Indeed, Casals respected all serious musicians, even in areas as far afield from his own as atonality, which he regarded as a significant attempt to find new types of expression, praising Alban Berg as “a master who moves in a world that is not mine.”) Recalling that Bach himself had constantly chafed against the poor musicianship and limited resources of his time, Casals felt compelled to apply all available means to produce the best possible rendition and derided those who would stick to the written notes and historical constraints as confined in straitjackets inimical to the true demands of the music. Casals always insisted that he was more attracted to ensemble than solo work. As a young musician, he explored chamber music with a wide variety of contemporaries. In 1905, his passion coalesced into a trio with violinist Jacques Thibaud and pianist Alfred Cortot. The three toured and concertized for one month each year until 1934, when their union was fractured by politics. (Casals was a vehement anti-fascist; they weren’t.) Their repertoire was limited to 33 works, of which they recorded six in London from 1926 to 1928 (now on Naxos 110185, 110188, and 110195). Much great chamber music succeeds when all the players are temperamentally aligned and provide mutual reinforcement. Here, though, the combination of Casals’ rich extroversion, Thibaud’s elegant grace, and Cortot’s refined but natural poetry creates an enthralling balance of impulsive exploration and mutual respect, in which each attracts and leads the others and together create a whole far greater than the considerable sum of the parts. Their recordings still sound great and reflect the sheer joy of shared music-making — vibrant, visionary, and, even though they had been playing these works constantly for two decades, still full of the wonder of creating music afresh. Casals gained his first fame and was much in demand as a soloist with orchestra, yet he recorded few cello concertos. In 1929, as an extension of his trio activity, he cut a magnificent set of the Brahms “Double” Concerto with Thibaud on violin and Cortot conducting Casals’ own orchestra, boasting a vital and heartfelt interplay among soloists and orchestra (Naxos 110930). In a legendary 1937 recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto (Naxos 110930), Casals’ solos burst with vitality against the rich, powerful sound of the Czech Philharmonic under George Szell’s deeply empathetic but focused leadership. Among his few other solo recordings with orchestra is the 1945 Elgar Cello Concerto with Boult leading the BBC Symphony (EMI 63498) — somewhat bland yet respectful of the composer’s own pioneering 1928 recording with Beatrice Harrison — and a deeply moving (but not overwrought) 1936 “Bruch Kol Nidre” with Landon Ronald conducting the London Symphony (also on EMI 63498). Casals crushed his hand in a 1901 mountain climbing accident. Before his recovery was assured, he claimed to be overjoyed, relieved from the fear that he was becoming enslaved to a single instrument. Indeed, despite his fame as a cellist, he increasingly came to regard the orchestra as an instrument without limitations and turned to conducting as the fulfillment of his musical goal. In 1920, he determined that Barcelona deserved a world-class orchestra but, dissatisfied with the lax standards of its two existing ones, undertook to create his own, hiring 88 musicians with his own funds and paying them double the standard rate so as to ensure their full-time devotion without the need for other jobs to support their families. Despite a rough start — Casals collapsed at their first rehearsal and was confined to bed for two months — the Orquesta Pau Casals grew into a self-sustaining organization under their leader’s devout attention, attracting stellar soloists and guest conductors while Casals toured with his cello to support them. Throughout his career, Casals never forgot his roots and remained immersed in his deep abiding love of mankind. Rather than cater to the elite, Casals believed that the people who had produced a country’s wealth should share its cultural riches. With his Barcelona orchestra, he launched wildly popular concert series to which only low-paid workers were eligible to subscribe (for six pesetas — about $1 — for an entire season) and insisted that their acclaim “meant more to me than any applause I had ever received.” Politics had an impact on the careers of all European artists in the 1930s. But rather than be buffeted by the increasingly hostile waves, Casals was galvanized into action. In 1932, he was euphoric over the replacement of the Spanish monarchy with the birth of a republic that promised democracy and autonomy for his native Catalonia. Casals became a flashpoint of the new society, continuing to focus his and others’ attention toward stimulating workers’ education and culture. But his joy did not last — in 1936 civil war erupted, and after three agonizing years (for which Casals blamed the Allies’ arms embargo), Franco emerged as dictator and shattered Casals’ dreams. It was the defining moment of the balance of his years. Casals viewed music as an affirmation of the beauty of mankind, to be used as a force for the elevation of humanity. He believed that artists had a special responsibility to speak out since their voices could be heard when others’ were not. Artists must have consciences, he insisted, and must strive toward justice and freedom. “When I see innocent blood spilled and the tears of the victims of injustice, it becomes more important to me than my music and all my cello recitals.” When Spain fell, Casals went into exile and vowed that he would never return until Franco was defeated and democracy restored. Although he fervently strove to see his goal realized, he remained true to his word throughout the rest of his life, and even beyond — his body was returned to Spain for reburial only in 1979 after Franco had died and a popular election had been held. In the meantime, Casals relocated to the nearby village of Prades in the French Pyrenees, near the Spanish border. There he remained, at first voluntarily while seeking aid for refugees and giving benefit concerts, and later under house arrest by Nazi occupiers. Despite his hatred of the Franco regime, Casals was proud of Spain as the first country to have resisted Nazism and to have set an example for the rest of the world. As World War II ended, Casals was elated that the two most virulent forms of fascism had been vanquished in Europe and expected the Allies to oust Franco as well. When they didn’t, he became bitter. He refused to meet with an English diplomat: “You would speak about politics and I about morals; we would not understand each other.” He was also frustrated: “The only weapons I ever had were my cello and my baton.” He soon put those weapons to use. In England, he broke off a recording session with a new vow of conscience: Never again would he give a public concert until Spanish democracy was restored. He retreated again to Prades, intending that the musical silence of the world’s most sought-after cellist stand as mute testimony to the moral silence of the world’s governments. But the world soon came to him — not, as he had hoped, through a dawning of political conscience, but in the form of great musicians seeking his artistic counsel. Among these was violinist Alexander Schneider, who came to study the Bach solo violin suites and became a conduit between Casals and the world community. Schneider seized upon the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Bach’s death in 1950 to prevail upon Casals to participate in a Bach festival to be held in Prades. Casals agreed, on condition that all proceeds benefit a nearby refugee hospital. And so was born the legendary Prades Festival, which continued for a decade. Recordings made by Columbia during the first four years (now on Sony CDs) were uneven, but many of the concerts were broadcast and have now been issued in a magnificent Music and Arts box set (1113, 13 CDs for a bargain $60 or so). Even when the artists and repertoire are similar to those on the records there’s an extra zing of vitality and risk-taking. We also get to hear artists whose contracts precluded their appearance on Columbia, as well as new additions — especially Sandor Vegh, whose quartet gave a breathtakingly fluid Schumann Quartet and an exquisitely sensitive Quintet (with Rudolf Serkin) in 1956. The set also includes four hours of material in which Casals didn’t directly participate, but which remain imbued with his energizing spirit. Indeed, it’s all to his credit that Casals encouraged rising masters with contrary temperaments to share the cello seat during “his” festival. Casals’ last cello performance was a somewhat stiff and formal reading of the Mendelssohn Trio, with Schneider and Mieczyslaw Horszowski on Nov. 13, 1961, at the White House before select musical luminary guests and President John Kennedy, whose idealism Casals admired. The concert ended, as did every Casals recital since the war, with “El Cant dels Ocells,” his deeply moving solo arrangement of a Catalan folk song, a final reminder to America and the world of his ultimate allegiance and aspirations. (Actually, Casals made a brief further public appearance in October 1971, when he played “El Cant dels Ocells” at the United Nations in a tribute to peace.) The major project at the close of Casals’ career was “El Pessebre” (“The Manger”), a two-hour oratorio he began writing in 1943 as an outlet during his detention. Based on a prize-winning poem by Catalan poet Joan Alamdra, it’s not great or innovative music, but unmistakably sincere and direct, fully reflective of its composer, who considered himself deeply religious, although without the need of a church to mediate his relationship to God. In reaction to the Cold War and nuclear threat, Casals devoted much of his final decade to performing the work as a personal crusade of brotherhood and peace for mankind, personally arranging, rehearsing and leading each presentation in 74 locales during 13 years. After moving to his mother’s homeland of Puerto Rico and while traveling the world with his missive of “El Pessebre,” Casals found an artistic anchor in Vermont at the annual Marlboro Music Festival, which gathered dozens of musicians into a fabulous summer environment that served both to rejuvenate the established masters and to incubate rising newcomers. Casals was attracted not only by the affinity between nature and music that refreshed his spirit but also by the sincere and selfless desire of all the participants to share and learn. From 1960 to 1973, Casals bequeathed his vast knowledge and led the Marlboro Festival Orchestra, whose deceptively nondescript name concealed a dazzling roster of present and future superstars. Columbia recorded a variety of weekend concerts (now on Sony CDs) from Bach to Beethoven that still inspire with their depth and vitality, combining much of the acuity of chamber music with the full expressive resources of the modern orchestra. Casals’ life is a cogent reminder of the supreme purpose of art. His sublime music seemed all the more beneficent and compelling for having emerged from a soul seeped in integrity. Perhaps the most fitting summation of his legacy comes at the conclusion of Daniel Blum’s beautiful Casals and the Art of Interpretation, in which he reflects upon their last visit: “As I looked out at the ocean, the waves seemed to melt into the eyes of Casals, and the eyes back into the waves. I felt that the expanse of the sea, the arc of sky, the world of nature and humanity surrounding me had become a vast concert hall in which sounded the resonance of his soul.” Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Music articles by the author are posted on his Web site at www.classicalnotes.net.

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