Deeply-probing classic interpretations (but not *quite* comp
John Grabowski | USA | 10/25/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I was recently listening to this set and the new Schiff-Perenyi recordings on ECM for the purpose of comparing them and writing a review about my impressions. "Compare and contrast the sets, class, and write a review for Monday. Minimum of five pages, single-spaced, typed. --And don't ask your parents for help, because I can always tell."
Well, I was weird as a school kid, because I always loved assignments like that and never was inclined to ask my parents or anyone else. Not that we ever got to write about Beethoven cello sonatas--usually it was on something boring like Beowulf. So I've been comparing Serkin and Casals to Schiff-Perenyi, and, in the interest of efficiency, was going to write a review dealing with both sets and paste two copies on Amazon, one under this recording and one under the Schiff-Perenyi disc, thereby scoring two reviews with one effort. Then I discovered that apparently the ECM isn't available in America--or at least not through Amazon's American website. (It is on their UK page.) So much for my attempt at efficiency. At any rate, you can consider this a review of both recordings, and maybe I'll even mosey on over to the UK side and post this review with them.
Anyway, after listening to the two sets, it's clear the Serkin-Casals stands head and shoulders above Schiff-Perenyi. What's frustrating is trying to explain why the latter, despite immacualte playing (or maybe because of it?) is devoid of meaning, while the former, despite finger-slips and lapses of intonation (as well as more cautious tempi and less free abandon) displays a deep understanding of the works' structures and nuances. Take, for just one small example, the second movement of Op.5, No. 2: in the hands of less skilled interpreters, the waltz seems to be repetitious and too long, distended from the rest of the work. I always thought it was that way, and figured Beethoven just hadn't really mastered proportion yet.
Well, perhaps he hadn't, but Casals and Serkin make us believe he has. They find infinite variety in the theme, so that it doesn't sound redundant as it keeps returning. And I don't just mean they vary the dynamics or insert a pause here or there; they find just the proper weight for the pieces as it morphs from section to section. No one else has convinced me so much in this music, not even Heidsieck-Tortelier (a set I am very enthusiastic about nonetheless).
Some other moments are just unforgettable. Listen to the opening of Op. 102, No. 1: does anyone play music this way anymore? Pay attention to the way Serkin answers Casals in the introduction's main phrase. Then listen to the low tremolos in Serkin's left hand, with Casals the background, just before the main theme begins. It's positively heartbreaking! After a plaintive introduction like that, it seems logical to me that the main theme should have to *fight* for its very existence when it appears, and this is just how Casals and Serkin take it. (Listen to the dynamic interplay!) By contrast, Schiff-Perenyi play it relatively straight-laced, without much dynamics, and don't convince me they have anything to say; their mission seems to be just to play prettily. ("For extra credit class, contrast their handling of the last murmuring bars of the introduction with Serkin-Casals. Which one makes your hair stand up on your back?") When the latter two get to the first movement's second theme, that struggle from the terse introduction is absent, and the whole dramatic "point" of the piece is lost, to my ears. These musicians are more convincing in the facile works, such as the Op. 66 Magic Flute Variations--they're pretty, sweet-sounding, and not as deep as the triple-digit opus works.
I think the best way to put it is to say that I feel that Schiff-Perenyi have thought about the notes, and play them perfectly. They can play rings around Casals and Serkin, and generally do. But Casals and Serkin spent their study time thinking about the music, what it meant, why Beethoven started this one with a brooding introduction but not that one; how the absense of such an introduction changes the qualities of the movement's secondary theme, when the works get "dark" and when they get "light," and so on. So many of today's musicians, unfortunately, see the little squiggles on paper as technical obstacles to be hurdled; Casals and Serkin saw them as clues to divine what was inside the composer's head. And if they didn't always clear the hurdle--and sometimes they don't--so what? You understood what they meant.
I guess in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that while the Schiff-Perenyi are in immaculate sound, the Serkin-Casals recordings were made in the early 50s and are mono. This shouldn't stop anyone from buying them, but if you must have everything in your collection writ in large DDD letters, you should look elsewhere. And it will be your loss.
My only slight complaint is the titling of the Casals and Serkin set "The Complete Edition." Not quite. Missing is the little-known sonata in F Major, Op. 17, a transcription, as well as a theme and variations on Handel's Judas Maccabaus, WoO 45. These aren't major omissions that should dissuade you from buying the set, but it's not "complete," either. But even my beloved Heidsieck-Tortelier lacks the Op 17 sonata. Only the ECM has every last scraping of Beethoven's cello music.
Okay, that's my comparative essay. Hope you give me an A."
Casals and Serkin play Beethoven for the Gods
V. Stasov | 03/28/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This set is desert island gorgeous. Playing with passion, elegance, at times abandon, the performers are completely in tune with each other. This is elevated chamber music playing of an aristocratic order.
You can hear Casals grunting and moaning with pleasure through the performances - it sounds as though he's making love to his cello. Serkin's playing is simply beautiful - lucid and warm with some of the best trills I've heard - his playing in opus 60 is thrilling. Good clear sound allows you to listen unencumbered by distraction to this spectacular music-making.
The Schnabel - Fournier set of these pieces is quite wonderful, too - spunky and sparkling with Schnabel's great paced and joyous playing. The Schnabel virile luminosity is all there, partnered by Fournier's richly expressive and dignified cello. While it sounds like the historic performance it is, I rarely mind or notice. Art is what counts and the beauty of these performances shines through with radiant surrender. Who cares about a little interference - it adds to the wonder of the experience, knowing that this was recorded almost 60 years ago and we are priviliged to hear it today....
The dvd with Rostropovich and Richter playing Beethoven's cello sonatas is also splendid - Rostropovich is a marvelous musician to watch - he's in an altered state and quite uninhibited about his relationship with his instrument. Yes there are some incorrect notes played, but who cares? Rostropovich is demonically possessed at times and it's fascinating to watch his transformations and responses as he literally attacks his cello, especially in the rondo of opus 5 no. 2. Richter is a large man nearly bursting out of his tails. With his enormous hands he looks more like he could be unloading freight down at the docks, yet he plays these sonatas with such refined manners and sensitivity that it's heart rending to see this big, uncomfortable man playing such magnificent music."
"These golden recordings now belong to the legend ; in fact this set of Cello sonatas are played with sublime commitment and deep sense of muiscality . Casaland Serkin made an immortal couple . As you know serkin was a very special guest to Prades Festival and since this continous relationship a great and productive friendship was born . The result for us was one of the most admirable and top ranks readings of those Cello Sonatas . All of them are remarkable but the two, third ,and fifth are simply unbeatable . Fundamental issue in your collection."
Sublime Serkin, Nearly Unlistenable Casals
achdukleidustein | Vladivistock | 12/23/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Rudolph Serkin is one of the all time greats, his playing here shows why; Casals is an important historical figure, and there are some recordings of his i very much like for their muscular austere tone; this is not one of them. In fact there are moments in the first sonata where he even sounds out of tune at times.
I right there with Ed on this one, Casal's playing is so harsh, esp next to Serkins delicacy. Its almost crude, like the difference between smoked ham and a light chicken broth.
Compare this recording to the Bilson Bylsma period instrument recording."