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Leslie Parnas & The Brahms Double Concerto


Casals Festival, Puerto Rico, 1969

Double Concerto, Opus 102..................Brahms
Yehudi Menuhin, violin
Leslie Parnas, cello
Casals Festival Orchestra, Pablo Casals, conductor

Q: What's this? Is this for real?
A: Yes, it's real. This live performance was recorded on tape by the Voice of America.

Q: How is it? What's it like?
A: It's like nothing you've ever heard. See Notes, below.

Q: Where can I buy this recording?
A: Look here!

Q: Any more information?
A: Yes! Read on...

Notes on the recording

Pablo Casals was one of the most beloved and respected musicians of the 20th century. When he came to Puerto Rico in 1957 and founded the prestigious Casals Festival, he was immediately joined by the world’s preeminent musical talent. Each year an amazing collection of musicians gathered on this island to play in an orchestra under Maestro Casals. And beginning with pianist Rudolph Serkin on that first night in April, 1957, a veritable who's who of the musical world formed the ranks of guest performers to follow. For eighteen glorious years until his death in 1973, Maestro Casals himself held the podium at his Festival, sharing with the world, and with his friends, his great love of music.

It is a little-known fact that many of the Casals Festival performances were captured on tape and even on film. Most of this material was recently restored by the Library of Congress, after having been discovered in near-disastrous condition on the island, and now resides exclusively in the Pablo Casals Museum in the capital city of Puerto Rico, San Juan. Some few copies do also exist in the Library of Congress. And one tape, inexplicably, was found in the possession of an artist whose musical contribution to the Festival played no small part in its greatness.

Cellist Leslie Parnas enjoys a distinguished international career as one of the foremost cellists of his generation. Renowned not only for his technical prowess but also for the gorgeous depth of tone and profound musicality of his playing, Leslie Parnas is loved and admired by audiences, critics and fellow musicians the world over. In 1955, he became the principal cellist of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. He made his major recital debut at Town Hall in New York City in 1959. In 1957, he won the Geneva and Munich International Cello Competitions, as well as the first Prix Pablo Casals at the Paris Competition. In 1962, Mr. Parnas triumphed at the Tchaikovsky International Competition; in 1990 and 1995, he returned to the Competition as a juror for this prestigious event. And for fourteen years, from 1955 to 1969, he was principal cellist of the Casals Festival Orchestras in Prades, France and Puerto Rico.

The tape that serves as the source for this CD was found in a box marked “Airmail”, gathering dust for over 30 years, and bearing the imprint of the U.S. Information Agency. A little research shows this to have been the parent agency of the Voice of America, which must have taped the performance for later broadcast. It was never commercially released. The tape was made on May 29, 1969, the last year of Mr. Parnas’ participation in the Festival, and pairs him with the legendary American violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the Casals Festival Orchestra in a performance of Brahms’ great romantic Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, all under the baton of Maestro Pablo Casals.

The Double Concerto is the closest facsimile we have to a Cello Concerto by Brahms. The earlier Violin and Piano Concertos are much-loved staples of the repertoire, but the Double Concerto, Brahms’ last work for orchestra, is less often played, if for no other reason than that it requires two top soloists. The tradition of concertos for multiple soloists dates far back into the Baroque era, with more recent examples in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, but by Brahms’ time, with the rise of Romanticism and the dawning of the age of great interpreters, it had certainly fallen out of favor. Brahms, ever the Classicist, paid no heed. He dedicated this extraordinary work of art to two of his close friends -- cellist Robert Hausmann, to whom he had promised a cello concerto, and violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom he had had a recent falling-out, and which may in part have prompted this peace offering. The work was premiered in Cologne in 1887 by these two men with the composer himself conducting.

A small number of modern digital recordings of this work have been made. The better known recordings are from an earlier age and feature names like Stern and Rose, Francescatti and Fournier, Milstein and Piatigorsky, and from still earlier, Casals and Thibaud. One of the more highly regarded recordings dates from the same year as this one, 1969, and features David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. One cannot help marveling that this recording with Menuhin and Parnas could almost have disappeared. Recordings from the Marlboro Festival at which Casals and Parnas were both prominent have been widely distributed and sold, including the legendary performance of the Beethoven Triple Concerto with Jamie Laredo, Leslie Parnas, and Rudolph Serkin.

This recording of the Brahms, being a tape of a live concert, proclaims, perhaps even flaunts the inspiration and energy that only a live performance can generate. Its sheer power and generosity of spirit cast a revealing light on the digitized and packaged prescriptions we are generally served with today. Menuhin’s performance is brilliant and beautiful. Parnas’ performance is uniquely gargantuan and heroic. The ensemble playing of the two should cause the listener to wonder at the sheer perfection, the flawless congruence.

In my father’s house, there is a room that serves as a kind of picture gallery. Its walls and shelves are crammed with photos, drawings and mementos from fifty years of a life lived in music. Among those items I found yet another treasure, a photo snapped 35 years ago, in 1969, bearing three unmistakable countenances -- the three great artists captured in the maelstrom of the Brahms Double. Here, rescued from the dust and the vagaries of the music business, reunited with its iconic emblem, may be the best recording no one has ever heard.

-- Marcel Parnas, Stephentown, NY, January 2004