Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A "New" Casals Record?

I may have uncovered a previously unknown recording of the great cellist Pablo Casals, but I would like cellists and Casals experts to weigh in.

From 1915 to 1924, Casals recorded for Columbia Records. Interestingly, this period largely overlaps with the 1914-1923 lifespan of the Little Wonder record label. In brief, Little Wonder was the first discount record label; their records were one-sided, five inches in diameter, and sold for ten cents in an era when most records sold for 65 or 75 cents. (Celebrity classical recordings often sold for much more than that.) Little Wonders look like children's records, but they were aimed at a general audience. The repertoire consists mostly of pop hits of the day, but there were also jazz sides, classical selections, marches, and examples of other genres among their releases. There was no artist credit on the vast majority of Little Wonders - just a generic "Tenor Solo," "Band," "Vocal Trio," etc. Record collectors and specialists in early recorded sound have identified many of the artists, although many Little Wonders remain anonymous.

Without going into too much detail here, Little Wonder had a shadowy relationship with Columbia Records. All identified Little Wonder artists also recorded for Columbia - which is not to imply that they all had exclusive contracts with that label. In some cases the artists at Columbia sessions were offered a little extra money to record minute-and-a-half versions (the duration of a LW record) of the same selections they were recording for Columbia. In at least one case, a Columbia artist didn't know that he was making records for Little Wonder. Clarinetist Wilbur Sweatman's band was asked to make short "test" recordings at several of his sessions; Sweatman was later shocked when someone played him some of those "tests," which Little Wonder released as "Jazz Band" records.

Which brings us to Little Wonder 649, labeled "Tannhauser - The Evening Star; Violincello Solo." Knowing the Columbia connection, I have long wondered if the anonymous cellist could be Pablo Casals, the most prominent cellist recording for Columbia at the time. No company files have been discovered, but according to Tim Brooks and Merle Sprinzen's book about the label (see below), LW 649 would have come out around 1917. Casals recorded "The Evening Star" for a twelve-inch Columbia record on April 21, 1916 - the first of several times he recorded Wagner's aria. I've had the Little Wonder record for years, but just managed to track down a copy of the 1916 Columbia - a nice French issue, with the title listed as "O Star of Eve" on the label.

On first listen, I was struck by how much it seemed to be the same orchestra, the same conductor, and even the same studio on both records. I was less convinced that it was the same cellist - the player on the Little Wonder played more dramatic glissandos in a few places - a characteristic I've never associated with Casals. But on listening more carefully, I found that the glissandos are there on the Columbia recording; they're just more subtle. If it's the same player, it's easy to imagine him having a little fun and "schmaltzing" up the short version more.

And I do think that it's the same player on both records. Below I have linked to the full Columbia version, the Little Wonder version, a one-and-a-half-minute excerpt (starting at 2:13) from the Columbia that corresponds to the portion of the piece recorded for Little Wonder, and a composite on which the Columbia excerpt is immediately followed by the Little Wonder.

Some caveats are in order for those unfamiliar with early 20th century recording techniques and records. These recordings were made acoustically, with the musicians playing into large horns that fed the sound to a membrane, which in turn vibrated the cutting needle. Microphones wouldn't come into play for recording for almost ten more years. And surface noise is always present on 78 RPM records. Furthermore, the razor-thin profit margin of the Little Wonder company required that the records be made as cheaply as possible, so they are made of cheaper and noisier material than the standard records of the time. I have applied a little bit of noise reduction on the Columbia and a little more on the Little Wonder. But since noise reduction can affect the sound of the instruments, I tried to stop at the point at which I heard just a little change in the cello sound.

I think that Little Wonder 649 is played by Pablo Casals. Cellists and other experts, what do you think?

Evening Star - Columbia version, April 21, 1916; Columbia matrix 48716; French Columbia 7360; also issued on American Columbia A5953

The Evening Star - Little Wonder 649

Columbia Evening Star excerpt

Columbia excerpt and Little Wonder 649 in succession

More information about the Little Wonder label can be found at this website, by Merle Sprinzen, the dean of Little Wonder collectors. She is the coauthor (with Tim Brooks) of Little Wonder Records and Bubble Books, published in 2011 by Mainspring Press. It's an essential volume for Little Wonder collectors.

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