Sony Classical
Casals Edition SMK 58992
For me, this album is a matter of life and death. Twice over.

Since that may sound a little extreme, let me explain. When I was merely a boy, my parents attended the Bath Music Festival near the English/Welsh border to hear this music played by Yehudi Menuhin and friends. On the day of the performance, lunch found my parents sitting next to the table of Menuhin and his family, thrilled to be able to meet him and expressing how much they looked forward to the evening's performance. That very afternoon, my mother took ill and was taken to a doctor. She was pregnant and the doctor advised her to rest. My mother asked if she could attend the concert. "You can go to the concert, or you can have the baby. Your choice." So it was my father who went to the concert on his own.

Now you must know that my father was the jazz lover, my mother the classical music aficionado and amateur pianist. My father only went to classical concerts to humor her. Yet whether it was the heightened tension of the day, the meeting with Menuhin, or the majesty of the performance, he returned home a changed man. "This", he said, "was the most wonderful music I have ever heard!" That was good enough for me.

The second matter of life or death? Well, I once listened to an interview with Artur Rubinstein, the great pianist, on the radio program Desert Island Discs. He confessed how this String Quintet was the music he'd choose to listen to on his own deathbed. That, too, was good enough for me.

We can all argue over the single greatest piece of classical music, with some calling it this Quintet, others preferring the B Minor Mass, The Magic Flute or any number of other great works. I will only say that this music belongs right up there. If push came to shove? It might have my vote, too. It's music that stretches the emotional resources of performers to the very limits while being graced with the most heart-rending of melodies.

This Quintet was written for two violins, a viola and two cellos. There isn't a lot of music for this combination of instruments, hence you won't find many established String Quintets. Usually a String Quartet -- of which there are many -- will invite a cellist to join them. This performance is different. It was recorded at the Prades festival in 1952, featuring artists invited by Pablo Casals himself to appear at that festival, often year after year. The violinists on this occasion were Isaac Stern and Alexander Shneider; the cellists Casals and Paul Tortelier; the violist Milton Katims - all superstars. Generally, that doesn't bode well for chamber music, with each such artist used to having his own way, used to being the center of the show. Nonetheless, here we are treated to the most committed and coherent performance of this work that I've ever heard - and I've heard a lot of interpretations.

What made this happen? There are superstars, you see - and then there is Pablo Casals. Even amongst these heavyweights, he commanded the greatest respect. I don't believe this came just from his musicianship. Though a great cellist and pioneer in his field who single-handedly rescued the Bach Cello suites from obscurity, there have been other great cellists like Rostropovich and Piatigorsky, with Tortelier easily his technical match. Put differently, each of the players was at least as strong on his instrument as Casals was on the cello.

If not technique, what else then? These players had all gathered at the invitation of Casals. On principle, the humanitarian Casals refused to set foot in a great many fascist counties. This included his native Spain and Germany. The world's foremost musicians came to him instead, to play at the festivals he organized in his new home of Prades, France. Each of these players owed part of his musical development to Casals as mentor. What made Pablo Casals great was his complete identification with the music, his unique understanding of the composer's intensions which came from his single-minded dedication. Casals breathed music like others would breath air. For him, it never was a job but a calling, the ego completely removed from his playing. He wasn't there to interpret Schubert. He was there to reveal Schubert, to recreate the music to please but one person - Schubert himself. You don't have to take my word for it. All the evidence lives on this disc. Turn down the lights, put down your magazine, sit in your favorite chair, play this music straight through. Play it twice, play it every day if you will. You may never tire of this towering achievement.

I could point to this or that moment in the performance, but it is not one strung together of exquisite parts. In fact, the playing is never beautiful, the string tone never exquisite. If you look for highlights, you'll miss the point entirely. The strength of this performance is its integrity, passion and the grand architectural design that holds it all together.

It is the spirit of this man that shines through this recording and so many of his performances. Many years later, I was fortunate enough to experience Casals live in Jerusalem - but that is another story. Casals was a spirit as great as Ghandi. That is evidenced by his lifestyle and how he stood up against the European fascists regardless of personal consequences.

His indomitable will is evident in this recording's every phrase, how he takes the music by the scruff of its neck, propels it forward with a combination of great pathos and masculinity. He inspires each of the performers to play well beyond their usual superlative selves and to follow his interpretive lead without question. There is imperfection of tone and ensemble, true - but the sheer passion of this composition comes through fifty years later as though there were no other possible way to play this music. The sound quality is not particularly good, not even for the early fifties, but don't let that deter you from shelling out a few dollars.

Is all of Schubert's work written at this exalted level? Almost everything written in the last years of his life is. His last three piano sonatas, the late quartets and the two piano trios are clearly works of the very highest distinction, written after Schubert had studied the late quartets of Beethoven. In his final years (and still in his early thirties), Schubert appears to have absorbed all the advanced thinking suffused into Beethoven's master works. The late Beethoven and late Schubert works are all written at a sublime level, yet there is a great difference between them. With Beethoven, you see the structure and follow the lines of architecture. These are thrilling works to admire but which aren't necessarily enjoyable - take the Grosse Fugue for example. However, Schubert's genius concealed his brilliant technique to simply communicate the loftiest thoughts to the ear of the receptive listener. You won't be dazzled by complex fugues or the virtuosity demanded to execute them. Instead, the music speaks in a human voice which shares the composer's pain, joy, love and fear, the gamut of all his experience.

Schubert did not always compose such. His most famous works -- the Trout Quintet and Unfinished Symphony, many of his earlier works -- pale by comparison. They are delightful, lyrical and somewhat reminiscent of early Beethoven - good but not great stuff. As a filler on this disc, we have a prime example of the good stuff: The Fifth Symphony. Here Casals switches hats to conduct the Prades Festival orchestra, just a few days after the Quintet was recorded. The recording quality is slightly improved and the performance has delightfully sprung rhythms. The orchestra is enjoying itself in this sunny work while Casals achieves chamber-like precision from his forces. One could wish for a more elevated coupling. Perhaps Sony can be persuaded to bring a freshly remastered set of Casals recordings of chamber music to SACD? Meanwhile, buy this CD for the Quintet. Make no mistake, this is the one to hear on your deathbed!