Alfred Cortot / Jacques Thibaud / Pablo Casals BEETHOVEN - SCHUBERT - MENDELSSOHN - SCHUMANN - HAYDN Piano Trios BRAHMS Double Concerto

Unlike string quartets, which had behind them a tradition of stable partnership, piano trios were mostly adventitious ensembles until in 1906, at Cortot's instigation, he, Thibaud and Casals got together, rapidly acquiring a unique reputation and an enthusiastic following. Each of the three had already made a name as a soloist but though their characters and temperaments differed widely one from another, they fused together in a way remarkable for the unanimity of their musical thinking and their apparent spontaneity of expression. In the quarter-century of the ensemble's existence, its repertoire, as Jean Loubier's excellent detailed note here reveals, consisted of 30 works, about a third of which however were played once only: the recordings gathered here are of the works the team played most often.
The performance of Schubert's B flat Trio made in 1926 when none of the three artists had yet reached the age of 50, was one of the earliest great classics of the recorded chamber music catalogue (many of us treasured for years those four 78rpm discs), and its present transfer to CD serves to show that one's recollected admiration is not merely nostalgic. This is a vivid recording, with splendid drive in the first movement; and Casals opens the Andante with a beautiful cantabile tone yet avoids sentimentality. The recording, a bit shallow, is nevertheless astonishingly good, considering when it was made. Beethoven's Kakadu Variations, from the same sessions, have an extraordinarily wide dynamic range but there is some obtrusive noise at the start. Has any work except Dohnanyi's Variations on a Nursery Song ever contained such a misleadingly grave long introduction to an ingenuous theme? Thibaud's light, dancing solo variation is a delight.
From the technical point of view the 1927 recordings are much less good. No fewer than four engineers are jointly credited: did they disagree among themselves? At any rate, the Haydn G major Trio is much too closely miked, producing a thin whistle on the violin and edgy tone in the Poco Adagio (the second half of which is affected by scratchy surface noise). Performance-wise too this is disappointing: the famous 'Gipsy' Rondo starts untidily and there are several imperfections of ensemble later in the semiquavers. Mendelssohn's D minor Trio, recorded at the same time, is set a little more distantly, but the string tone in the Andante (which tends to plod) and the Scherzo is unpleasantly wiry. The best things here are the turbulence of the first movement, Casals's gentle calm in its second subject, and Cortot's sensitive shaping of the theme of the Andante. The Mozart/Beethoven variations for cello and piano are marred by gritty, crackly sound.
In 1928 the artists moved into London's Small Queen's Hall for the other two trios here. The sound produced, though variable, shows a distinct improvement; the piano tone is fresher in the Beethoven than the Schumann (where, probably because of the instrument's almost inevitable domination, the engineers seem to have distanced it more). The Schumann is notable for the warm, spaciously romantic reading of the first movement and the vitality of the finale (which should have followed the slow movement immediately, without the gap inserted here): Casals can be heard grunting from time to time. There is some surface noise in the last two movements of the Archduke Trio, and Cortot lets the team down with some wrong notes and untidy trills, but overall this is an impressive performance, particularly in the lightness of the Scherzo and the sense of mystery in its Trio.
Cortot's technical unreliability again becomes noticeable in the Kreutzer Sonata, recorded in Paris in 1929: he is fractionally behind Thibaud in places, and his left hand makes a bad boss-shot at the sonata's final bars. But there is a wonderful sense of urgency and forward impetus in the first movement, and Thibaud brings a gentle grace (despite some portamentos that in the present day may appear exaggerated) to the theme of the Andante's variations. A fortnight earlier the three colleagues had met in Barcelona to record the Brahms Double Concerto with Casals's own orchestra (which he had founded ten years earlier) conducted by Cortot. The start of the recording is dispiriting, with cramped orchestral sound and thin tone from the soloists, but the engineers somehow manage to adjust matters, and for the bulk of the work the sonority and presence worthily reflect Thibaud and Casals's intense fire and emotionalism. These three historically important and well-filled discs valuably document these great artists.' (Gramophone)


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