Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A portrait of the cellist as a young man


The appropriately young Alart Quartet from Spain has done classical music a big favour by making the first recording of Pablo Casals' early unpublished String Quartet. Composed when the cellist was seventeen, the Quartet has been recorded using a performing edition created from a manuscript in Pau Casals Collection in the National Archive of Catalonia. It comes coupled with Casals' uncompleted Sonata for Violin and Piano played by Josep Colomé and Katia Michel on a CD from Spanish independent label Klassic Cat made under the artistic directorship of North Carolina trained and Barcelona resident Mac McClure. Production values are excellent and the LP quality packaging by Barcelona based Mandaruixa Design deserves a mention, although the transposition of timings for the Quartet and Sonata did slip through unnoticed.

Made for media discoveries of lost masterpieces are currently trending. So let's make one thing quite clear at this point, Pau Casals' String Quartet is not being spun as a newly discovered masterpiece. Which is the way it should be, because it is not a newly discovered masterpiece. The Quartet is a youthful and derivative work which exhibits the musical conservatism that never left Casals, although he was broad minded enough to be a passionate advocate of Ernst Bloch. When Casals wrote his Quartet he had been studying Bach's Cello Suites for four years, yet there is a curious absence of counterpoint in this appealing but unadventurous chamber work. But any fresh light on one of the twentieth centuries great musicians and humanitarians is valuable, and what makes the Quartet of great interest is its context rather than its genius.

In Slaughter House Five Kurt Vonnegut wrote:
"All moments, past present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for existence. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone for ever."
Today genius, whether genuine or contrived, is valued more than context. To avoid becoming just another entertainment medium classical music must develop again the ability to look at any moment that interests it and value its historical context. Equally, classical music must stop ripping every interesting moment out of its context and transporting it screaming and shouting into the age of social media and classical charts. If any proof is needed of the power of historical context consider the unprecedented success of Alex Ross' The Rest is Noise; a book that is refreshingly light on musical analysis but has the telling subtitle Listening to the Twentieth Century. Further proof comes from the infinitely more modest success of On An Overgrown Path, a blog written not by a musician but by a lapsed social scientist.


While the main merit of Pablo Casals' early chamber music is its context, his choral music is of wider appeal. When I started my search for Pablo Casals four years ago I wrote about the deleted and difficult to find 1987 recording of his sacred music from the Escolania Choir from Santa Maria de Monteserrat. I recently tracked down the second hand CD copy seen above in Germany and it was well worth the search. Originally issued by Koch who were subsequently acquired by Universal Music this is a document of real value that demands re-issue.

Casals said "I have this divine strain in myself". His sacred works were composed for the Benedictines at Santa Maria de Monteserrat and include a setting of that peerless Marian staple the Salve Regina, while his oratorio El Pessebre tells the biblical Christmas story. But I recently came across an intriguing aspect of Casals that is missing from his biographies. Mary Lutyens, mother of composer Elisabeth Lutyens, was a follower of the Indian writer and philosopher Krishnamurti and has written several 'authorised' books about him. In her biographical Life and Death of Krishnamurti she recounts how Casals was a friend of the philosopher and played for him in Rome in 1963.

Krishnamurti had links with many musicians in his early years when he was closely associated with the then-fashionable Theosophy movement. But Casals' friendship post-dates by decades Krishnamurti's 1929 split from the Theosophists. It is of particular interest as Krishnamurti described religion "as the frozen thought of man out of which they build temples" and he counselled against the "conditioning" of established religions such as Catholicism. Casals was publicly linked to the musical tradition of the Catholic church, but his friendship with Krishnamurti hints at a more complex and little known private side. It also resonates with the admiration shown by that other great Catalan musician Jordi Savall for the radical theologian Raimon Pannikar. To date I have found no mention of the connection between Krishnamurti and Casals other than in Mary Lutyens' book; corroboration and further information would be welcome.

Billy Pilgrim describes in Slaughter House Five how:
The [Tralfamadorians] were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings about time.
Time and fashion have not been kind to Pablo Casals and Krishnamurti. But both shared with the Tralfamadorians an ability to see and act in new dimensions, and both have many wonderful things to teach us mere Earthlings. Speaking of which, here is a portrait of the cellist as an old man.


Also on Facebook and Twitter. Pablo Casals' Chamber Music was a chance find in Prelude Records, the other resources were purchased online. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

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