Originally published on July 13, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
When I first wrote about the EMI box of complete recordings by the cellist Pablo Casals, it was partly in recognition that the first two discs in the box documented the first time that the solo cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1007–1012) had been recorded in their entirety. Thus, even though the recordings were made in a studio, they provided an excellent “listening context” for the performances of Mstislav Rostropovich recorded in Vézelay Abbey and included in his Complete EMI Recordings box. However, if those recordings created the first opportunity for a “global audience” for those suites in the late thirties, a decade earlier EMI provided what was probably the first opportunity for the entire genre of chamber music. Between 1926 and 1928, Casals joined with pianist Alfred Cortot and violinist Jacques Thibaud to prepare studio recordings of five piano trios by (in chronological order) Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, and Robert Schumann. While it is unclear whether or not Bach ever intended any of his suites to be performed before an audience, it is almost certain that all of these trios where never intended to be performed beyond the intimate setting of a drawing room (what I have called “The Spirit of the Schubertiad”) among intimate acquaintances (of the host if not of any of the performers). Thus, for most listeners the chamber music genre was far less familiar than that of the symphony orchestra concert, opera, or even vocal recital.
Most likely this was at least partially a matter of technology. The amplitude of a symphony orchestra or opera company is far greater than that of a piano trio, and the first technologies for registering the vibrations of sounds were extremely limited. As to the solo voice, it is true that Enrico Caruso made his first recordings in 1902; but he had a voice that could register itself in the most remote regions of the uppermost balcony in any opera house. Any technology that could hear Thomas Edison recite “Mary had a Little Lamb” would respond to Caruso’s voice!
I am not familiar enough with the history of recording technologies to assess the quality of equipment in Kingsway Hall in London in 1926, but I do know that Casals first started playing trios with Cortot and Thibaud in 1905 and that they continued as a trio until 1934. Thus, for those (like the members of the Beaux Arts Trio) who have expressed skepticism over “star soloists” coming together to play a chamber music recital and then going off on their separate touring ways, I find it reasonable to grant that, while all three of them had distinguished solo careers, when Casals, Cortot, and Thibaud came together, they played as a “real” piano trio. From this point of view, I cannot imagine anyone better to serve as “ambassadors” for the chamber music genre for a worldwide audience, most of whom may never have heard a piano trio.
One way of appreciating their impact is that just about any community of music lovers today would regard all five of these trios as warhorses. It is easy to imagine that, through these recordings, music students around the world were first exposed to the sound of the “Archduke” trio and developed a craving to make that sound themselves. Today we have audiences as familiar with the “Archduke” as they are with Beethoven’s fifth symphony.
It is thus hard to overestimate the importance of these historical recordings; and I would go so far as to say that, even today, they can provide a powerful “listening context,” not only for those still unfamiliar with the chamber music genre but also for those familiar with current and recent piano trio ensembles. Furthermore, EMI now has two opportunities to experience this “listening context.” In addition to the aforementioned Casals box, there is also a set of 3 CDs (illustrated above) devoted strictly to Casals, Cortot, and Thibaud (which, for good measure, also includes the 1929 recording of Johannes Brahms’ A minor double concerto, Opus 102, with Thibaud and Casals as soloists and Cortot conducting the Orquestra Pau Casals). Even those with budget limitations are in a good position to appreciate what may well be the dawn of public consciousness of chamber music.