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Page 16, 6th February 1993

6th February 1993
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Page 16, 6th February 1993 — Master of the cello

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Master of the cello

Pablo Casals

Robert Baldock Gollancz, £20 At 22 Pablo Casals played for Queen Victoria at Osborne; at 84 he played for John F. Kennedy at the White House. He was the world's greatest cellist; he put the instrument on the musical map, and was also an inspiring conductor and an indifferent composer. For some 30 years he refused to play in Franco's Spain. He was an outstanding patriot and world citizen. He lived to the age of 97.

When, at the age of 81, he was about to be remarried, to a Puerto Rican girl 60 years his junior, and was warned that consummation might prove fatal, he is said to have replied: "Well, if she dies, she dies."

Casals was Catalan; his mother, born in Puerto Rico, fostered his musical talent, started him off on the guitar but let him settle on the cello. He invented physical ways of improving cello technique and every cellist will agree that he revolutionised the art of playing this intractable instrument. At an early age this tiny man became, by common consent, the finest cello player in the world, increasing his fame and income by setting his fee at double what anybody else got, not only cellists but his peers in other spheres, such as Kreisler or Paderewski.

By his success he made it possible for other cellists, such as Suggia, Fournier, Cassado and Tortelier, all of them his pupils, to have big careers. Guilhermina Suggia (known also for her portrait by Augustus John) was named as his "companion"; he later married an American singer and finally the Puerto Rican youngster, a cellist, subsequently married to the pianist Eugene Istomin. The woman who lasted longest in his life was Franchisca Capdevila, whom he married on her deathbed.

Casals's life fell into four parts: childhood, travelling virtuoso, exiled patriot and extreme old age, the last part mainly in Puerto Rico. The great feature of his existence was that he surrounded himself with congenial and superior music-makers; above all, he was the supremo of the cello and a teacher, whether he taught cellists or orchestras or chamber-music groups. In exile in the early Fifties he directed festivals at Prades and Perpignan, and later did the same in Puerto Rico, where he helped to give that American dependency a cultural life. For over 10 years he was a lynchpin in Vermont at the Marlboro Festival; and he also went regularly to Zermatt to give masterclasses.

Under the threat of nuclear war he devoted considerable time and his customary energy to the cause of peace, by his music-making, by his status as a musicpeace ikon of world stature, and by conducting many performances of his oratorio El Pessebre (The Manger), a work of reproachable blandness but worthy ideals.

He began each day by playing Bach, whose music he revered above all else, and one of the greatest gifts he left to the world is his recording of the six unaccompanied cello suites by J. S. B. The other solo revelation of his art was the recording, also made in the Thirties, of the cello concerto by Dvorak. He made many other fine recordings, especially of chamber music, but these two show his genius for his instrument and for music-making.

Was he a saint without fault, did he never treat people badly, was his instinct infallible? No, of course he had warts and faults, but his good deeds so clearly outweigh the imperfections that it seems pointless, if unfashionable, to devote much space to them. They are there, tucked away in the pages of this new biography by Robert Baldock, which gives the facts painstakingly, but reminds me of Casals's own compositions, being worthy and bland. There is not much more than a whiff of the real man; he never comes off the page at you.

More vivid, readable and eloquent is H. L. Kirk's biography with the same title, published in 1974, which, at double the size, has room to quote more, catalogue more and to explore in more depth Casals's colleagues and familiars, in particular the three composers whose works he promoted with a vigour equalled only by the public's subsequent apathy in the face of them: Emanuel Moor (Hungarian), Julius Röntgen (Dutch) and Donald Francis Tovey (British). At one time Moor's works, including the double concerto he wrote for Suggia and Casals, were played all over Europe; the brilliant analyst Tovey was also a fine pianist but his music was aptly dealt with by Constant Lambert who, reviewing his concerto, written for and performed by Casals, said that its opening movement seemed to last as long as his own first term at school. Mr Baldock completely misses the point of this joke by half-quoting it. Written nearly 20 years after Casals's death, the new book is able to tidy things up, but otherwise its only real advantage for the listener wanting to learn something of Casals's life and work is that it is in print and Kirk's is not.

John Amis