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Updating Pair of Legends: Casals and Rubinstein

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar. </i>

Our most prolific labels, Sony and RCA, have devoted a good deal of recent activity to restoring to circulation their catalogues of the recordings of cellist and sometime conductor Pablo Casals (Sony) and pianist Artur Rubinstein (RCA), both of whom lived and recorded into ripe old age.

The Casals tribute consists of 11 separate, mid-priced volumes of material originating at the festivals Casals directed during the early 1950s at Prades and Perpignan in France, near the border of his native Spain, from which he remained in self-imposed exile to protest the dictatorial regime of Francisco Franco.

These are all-star affairs, gathering together some of the biggest names of the time in music dear to the heart of Don Pablo. Casals, then in his mid-70s, participates in all performances, occasionally as conductor but most often doing what he did best, playing the cello inspiritingly, unaffectedly and with tremendous gusto--if hardly, at this late stage of his career, with elegance of tone or the most reliable intonation.

The artistic offenses are numerous here, but they are rarely Casals’ doing. The principal villain is the late violinist Alexander Schneider, who feels impelled to load virtually every other phrase with line-destroying rubatos and Luftpausen , to most ill effect in the great Schubert Trios (B-flat, 58989, and E-flat, 58988). Casals is the cellist in both, with pianists Eugene Istomin (who brings his own set of distorting quirks) and, contrastingly, penny-plain Mieczyslaw Horszowski.

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If there is a hero besides Casals in this series, it’s Isaac Stern, exhibiting the extraordinary musicianship so often overshadowed and overlooked in the face of his technical prowess.

It is Stern, as first violinist, who brings the propulsive power to the series’ highlights: the gruff, hugely dramatic reading of Schubert’s String Quintet in C (58992) and a darkly affectionate Brahms Sextet in B-flat (58994).

Stern also shows that he was a Mozart stylist of rare and, for his time, perhaps unique insight with his solo in the Sinfonia Concertante, K. 364, in which he is ably partnered by violist William Primrose but struggles vainly to get the lead out of Casals’ baton. The coupling is a small-scaled, intonationally sour Mozart A-major Concerto by violinist Erica Morini (58983).

The Bach program (58982) is musicologically primitive even for the early 1950s, and the Mozart piano concertos and Beethoven trios had best been left on the shelf. But there’s compensation in the glowing, still remarkably fresh-sounding set of Beethoven Cello Sonatas (58985, 2 CDs) that find Casals at his most communicative and energetic--that great, growling tone under control most of the time--in no small part due to the fiery partnership of pianist Rudolf Serkin, in one of his most memorable recorded outings.

The 1953 performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto, with Eugene Ormandy the helpful conductor, is usually remembered for the wrong reason, the huge groan Casals emits just before his solo entry. What comes after that groan is not one of the work’s more refined interpretations, but for long stretches one that projects an unblushingly broad lyricism recalling not only a younger Casals but an entire, long-gone era of grandly expressive virtuosity.

The coupling, however, is another dud: Schumann’s Trio in D minor, with Horszowski’s playing at its most recessive, Schneider doing his baleful thing, and Casals’ cello sounding rather like a mistuned double-bass.

Outstanding among recent reissues of 1950s and ‘60s recordings by Artur Rubinstein in RCA Victor’s mid-priced Gold Seal series are three Beethoven sonatas--the Sonata in G, Opus 30; No. 3, the “Spring,” and “Kreutzer"--in which the exuberant pianist and the patrician violinist Henryk Szeryng were able to find a richly satisfying interpretive middle ground (61861).

A mostly Liszt program dating from the early 1950s is also pure pleasure, highlighted by a “Mephisto Waltz” as curvaceous as it is diabolically driven, a sensuously elegant “Valse oubliee,” and the most ripsnorting Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 imaginable (61860).

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