Classical Reissue Reviews
J.S. BACH: 6 Suites for Solo Cello – Pablo Casals, cello (recorded 1936-39) EMI/Pristine Audio
Published on March 7, 2011
J.S. BACH: Suites for Solo Cello = No. 1 in G Major; No. 2 in d minor, No. 3 in C Major, No. 4 in F-flat Major, No. 5 in c minor, No. 6 in D Major – Pablo Casals, cello (recorded 1936-39) EMI/Pristine Audio XR Ambient Stereo PACM 074, TT: 2 hrs. 10 min. [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
This is one of the most venerated classical recordings ever made, done in the EMI Studios in London using cutting lathes powered by falling weights. When he was only 13 Casals found the second-hand sheet music for the Bach Suites in a music store in Barcelona and spent the next 13 years practicing them every day before he would perform them in public for the first time. Although Casals made many recordings during his long career – of solo, chamber and orchestral music, and as a conductor – he is best known for this amazing recording of the suites for unaccompanied cello.
Each movement has its own beauties to be heard. Mostly there is only a single melodic line with very little harmony. Some passages sound like pedagogic exercises, but suddenly there will be a glorious expressive section of great beauty. Though overall the interpretation is rather dark, Casals plays with dynamics, phrasing, rubato, and other devices to shape the melodic line – sometimes using a thin and wiry tone and other times a rich and full, almost orchestral tone. Some of the six sections of each suite seem to bring their dance form titles into terpsichory action, while others are more sedate in their variations on a theme. The Suite No. 5 seems to be the most loved of all six, but each one is a gem.
The somewhat limited range of the cello, and the fact that this is strictly a solo performance, made it ideal for the recording technology of the 1930s. Most of the LP and CD reissues of Casals’ original recordings are terrible – not even close to the full-bodied sound of his cello, though there are many different versions out there. For years the sonic standard was considered to be the original 78s, which one specialist reissue dealer had in his catalog at $500 for the entire set. The EMI/Angel CD reissue was one of the worst. In 1996 a small Italian reissue label – Grammofono 2000 – brought out a reissue on CD using the Cedar noise reduction process. This remastering was a revelation – finally letting us hear the sound of the original recordings. This 2-CD set is no longer available, but another single Casals CD from the same label is listed at Amazon for $159.
I have the Grammofono release and compared it to this new restoration from Pristine Audio. I found them to be almost identical, and his is even available in an ambient stereo version (although I didn’t hear much difference from the mono). Restoration engineer Andrew Rose says this was one of the most remarkable restorations it has been his pleasure to undertake. It can also be procured as a download, but the cost of the mono CD is 20 Euros.
– John Sunier