Casals Festivals at Prades - Live Concert Performances Box set
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This collection features the best public performance recordings from Prades, in which Casals is joined by the violinists Menuhin, Szigeti, Grumiaux, Goldberg and Vegh; the pianists Cortot, Serkin, Horszowski, Kapell and Curzon; and a host of other illustrious instrumentalists. None of these performances appears on the recent Pearl collection of Prades and Perpignan performances which derive from the commercially issued without audience Columbia recordings. 8 CDs in this boxed set were previously released on Music & Arts CD sets 688 and 689 (no longer available), and 4 CDs, containing over 6 hours of music, have never before been released. This collection is eminently affordable: 12 CDs priced as 6 discs!
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It is impossible to overpraise this production, or find the words to adequately thank Music and Arts for issuing such extravagance in these days of penny-pinching from what we used to call the major record companies. Thirteen (!) CDs of live performances, most featuring Pablo Casals working with front-rank collaborators, and all worth hearing many times over. Highlights? Casals, Rudolf Serkin, Alfred Cortot and Eugene Istomin survey all the Beethoven cello sonatas; Casals and Menuhin treat us to all the Brahms trios; the great, lamented William Kapell plays glorious Mozart and Beethoven with a young Arthur Grumiaux; the Vegh Quartet offer marvelous Schumann ..... and many, many more. Yes, you learn that even Willy Kapell could smudge a note now and then when performing 'live.' But, overall, the mistakes are few, and the musical insights so numerous as to defy listing.
Note that these performances are completely different from those other, "official" live Prades recordings issued by Sony/Columbia/CBS over the past 30 years, so if you own the Sony CDs (and you should!), rest assured that while there is some overlap of repertory, you will not be duplicating performances. (On the other hand, 9 of the 13 discs were previously issued a few years back by Music and Arts.) Sound quality is mono and variable, but never less than completely acceptable. In fact, the sound quality (as realized by ace M&A engineer Maggi Payne) is surprisingly good considering that many of the performances apparently originated in the naves of ancient stone churches, not exactly a recording engineer's dream soundstage!
Packaging is spartan, but well-designed and attractive: paper envelopes contain the CDs which are held together in a space-efficient soft box. Full liner notes helpfully discuss the origins of the Prades Festivals, and provide a limited discussion of participating artists other than Casals. (The fabulous Kapell performances -- of music he recorded nowhere else -- represent the pianist's only appearance at Prades, just a month or two before his tragic death in a plane crash.) Final word: In this set you get some of the greatest performing artists of all time playing some of the greatest chamber music ever written ..... and for an unbelievably low price. Unless you are completely averse to live music-making or have no tolerance at all for fallible sound, you need to own and hear these discs, over and over again!
The quality of the MUSIC here is remarkable. Many of the world's elite classical artists of the post-World War II generation are here - and the result is magic! A few of the highlights for me are the Mozart Piano Quartet No. 2 (disc 1), Beethoven Cello Sonata in A Major (disc 10), Mozart Oboe Quartet (disc 7), and many more...
You might wonder, however, how these live 50's recordings compare to recordings made in the digital era? Well... in a word, very good, very good indeed considering. Occasionally there is audience coughing (primarily just during the breaks between sections) - after all this was recorded live and you can also sometimes hear music pages turning on the stage if you listen closely. However, the sound is about as full range as you could ask for and the hiss and noise levels are very acceptable and not ever intrusive - I did note that the string instruments generally sound very good while the piano does not always fair quite as well, sometimes sounding slightly boxy - the piano is just far more difficult to record in any live setting because it is more dependent upon the room acoustics. Still, overall, the restoration is very good and trust me, you will become engaged in the MUSIC very quickly and forget all about any limitations of the recordings.
To summarize, as other reviewers have also noted, the sound quality, while not perfect by digital standards, is indeed very good - the important thing is to be assured that sound quality considerations never get in the way of the fantastic, wonderful performances. They really don't make music like this anymore.... well maybe they do sometimes, but not on thirteen discs in a row! Of course, I'm now going to purchase the second box set.
My only regret is that after discovering Prades in the eastern part of the Pyrenees on the map, I realize that I have passed it at least ten times on our way to a vacation destination in Spain, when I still lived in Europe. Not so next time we're in the area!