DVORÁK:  Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 (Czech Philharmonic Orch/George Szell, cond.).  BRAHMS:  Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102 (Jacques Thibaud, violinist/Pablo Casals Orch. of Barcelona/Alfred Cortot, cond.) (rec. 1929/1937)

NAXOS 8.110930 (B) (DDD) TT:  67:09

Some performances are so famous that one tends to cite them without periodic reference to the reality. Such are the two on this disc, respectively 72 and 64 years old, remastered digitally by Mark-Obert Thorn from acoustic sources that a note by him sets out in detail. The Brahms, with the nine-year-old orchestra that Casals  founded after World War One in Barcelona, has always been the lesser one acoustically, despite the matched fervor and musicianly thrust of Casals' and Jacques Thibaud's solo playing, superbly conducted by Alfred Cortot. The orchestra may not have been first-rate by Western European standards (much less those in the U.S. at Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or for that matter at Cincinnati under Fritz Reiner or Chicago under Frederick Stock). Yet, other than a horn bobble on the opening attacca of the slow movement, Cortot exhorted these Basques to play like major-leaguers. No Brahms since—not Heifetz/Feuermann with the Philadelphia Orchestra, or Milstein/Piatigorsky with the same orchestra disguised as the Robin Hood Dell, both on RCA monodiscs—has bettered this one, despite some stridency in Thibaud's tone as recorded. Indeed, Obert-Thorn has worked magical prodigies with the sound; moments after the performance  begins, the ear adapts and permits legendary artistry to take over.

That said in praise, the Dvorák is an even greater accomplishment by a ranking middle-European orchestra in an historically friendly hall, led by Szell who was just weeks from his 40th birthday. Despite fatigue, the 60-year-old Casals played rehearsals, two performances and the day-long recording sessions that yielded 21 sides, all within 72 hours. The recording has stood as definitive for more than six decades, revealing why cellists worldwide knelt before Casals while he lived, and in memory since his death in 1973, as the instrument's supreme master. Simply put, it is a glorious performance of a concerto that no other for cello has surpassed in more than a century since its creation.

At Naxos' basement-budget price, this is one more treasure painstakingly preserved that anyone with open and adaptable ears can cherish as some of us always have—even when we've not heard it for years, even decades -- but never before in sound as alive as this. Essential for any historical library that doesn't stop with stereo.

R.D.(Aug. 2001)