For his latest recording, Alban Gerhardt has put together an album of encores in homage to Pablo Casals, the great Spanish cellist. Among the 20 short encore pieces, which Gerhardt found on LPs recorded by Casals, are forgotten gems including the cellist’s arrangement of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude and Falla’s Nana, arranged by Maurice Maréchal. Here he tells us why he embarked on the project, why Casals is his idol, and what makes a great encore.
You’ve recorded over 20 CDs, including cello concertos by Prokofiev and Barber, sonatas by Brahms, suites by Bach and Britten, and even a previous disc of encores. Why did you decide to embark on this Pablo Casals project? I recorded an encore disc 13 years ago as my debut album for EMI. At that time I played lots of recitals and while I loved to play encores, I found it very difficult to record them. Now I don’t play as many recitals – I play more concertos – but I was missing the encores. They are like little jewels. I stumbled across the wonderful encore discs of Pablo Casals and found many pieces I’d never heard of. I love it that he plays them with care, like it’s the greatest music ever, not salon music.
Has Pablo Casals always been an inspiration? He was my first big idol. Later I replaced him with other people, and at some points I didn’t like him at all. When I was 13 or 14 I read his book Joys and Sorrows: Reflections and found it a bit self-indulgent, and there’s that LP of him in the White House when he played a bit out of tune, so I thought he wasn’t that great. But I came back to him and realised how much he did for the cello, how wonderful he was. How he plays JS Bach has a value even today. It’s not Baroque-informed, but the music starts to speak. He treats music as language, while managing to sing.
Were you worried about imitating him at all? Honestly, I completely forgot about him. I listened to two or three of the encores extensively because I wanted to write down the little cadenzas he did. I had to listen to the Chopin Nocturne in E flat for an hour for just 10 seconds of little cadenza-like stuff because it was so quick and hard to make sense of. But I didn’t listen to the LPs for inspiration; I wanted to do my own thing.
Is it hard to pull off a programme of encores? I find it much harder than doing sonata repertoire. More recently I recorded the Fauré Sonatas, and it was much easier. You play for longer stretches, rather than just having to create all those little differences in character and expression in two or three minutes.
What do you think makes a good encore? It manages to say everything in a short time. A perfect encore combines virtuosity, melody and a deeper message. Often there’s a quick part, a slow part and a quick part, ending in fireworks so people scream. On this disc, many of the encores aren’t the greatest as Casals wasn’t a super-virtuoso: they are more subdued. If I do a disc, which I hope to eventually, of Emanuel Feuermann or Mstislav Rostropovich, there’ll be much more neck-breaking stuff on it.
Do you have a favourite from this programme? There are two I don’t like very much at all: the Kreisler Chanson Louis XIII and Pavane and the Wagner To the Evening Star. I thought of taking them out, but the producer convinced me they offered a different colour. I like the Chopin Nocturne: I was a big Chopin lover when I was 10 or 12 and I had recordings of everything by Chopin. Also I went to ballet classes when I was 9 or 10, and Chopin was played by the pianist there. And how Casals played this piece was also a childhood memory, because I listened to the recording when I was young. I also really like the Edward MacDowell encore, Romanze.
And do you have a favourite Casals recording? When I played the Dvořák Cello Concerto in London recently, the conductor Vladimir Jurowski said to me in the first rehearsal that he’d just listened to a very interesting recording. He named the Pablo Casals performance with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and George Szell, which I’d listened to a couple of years before and loved. It’s much less self-indulgent, much more forward-thinking and simple than it’s often played nowadays. It’s often too heavy and slow.