When I first heard this set, I thought to myself: now I know how Howard Carter felt when he looked for the first time into Tutankhamen's newly-excavated tomb. Maybe you know the story: As his colleagues broke the seal on the long-undiscovered tomb's final door, Carter peered into a completely dark treasure room, illuminated fitfully by the beam of his flashlight. Someone asked, "What do you see?" and he answered, "Wonderful things!" Well, this set of Casals & Friends performances from early 1950s Prades Festivals also offers an unbelievable wealth of long-unheard, wonderful things.
It is impossible to overpraise this production, or find the words to adequately thank Music and Arts for issuing such extravagance in these days of penny-pinching from what we used to call the major record companies. Thirteen (!) CDs of live performances, most featuring Pablo Casals working with front-rank collaborators, and all worth hearing many times over. Highlights? Casals, Rudolf Serkin, Alfred Cortot and Eugene Istomin survey all the Beethoven cello sonatas; Casals and Menuhin treat us to all the Brahms trios; the great, lamented William Kapell plays glorious Mozart and Beethoven with a young Arthur Grumiaux; the Vegh Quartet offer marvelous Schumann ..... and many, many more. Yes, you learn that even Willy Kapell could smudge a note now and then when performing 'live.' But, overall, the mistakes are few, and the musical insights so numerous as to defy listing.
Note that these performances are completely different from those other, "official" live Prades recordings issued by Sony/Columbia/CBS over the past 30 years, so if you own the Sony CDs (and you should!), rest assured that while there is some overlap of repertory, you will not be duplicating performances. (On the other hand, 9 of the 13 discs were previously issued a few years back by Music and Arts.) Sound quality is mono and variable, but never less than completely acceptable. In fact, the sound quality (as realized by ace M&A engineer Maggi Payne) is surprisingly good considering that many of the performances apparently originated in the naves of ancient stone churches, not exactly a recording engineer's dream soundstage!
Packaging is spartan, but well-designed and attractive: paper envelopes contain the CDs which are held together in a space-efficient soft box. Full liner notes helpfully discuss the origins of the Prades Festivals, and provide a limited discussion of participating artists other than Casals. (The fabulous Kapell performances -- of music he recorded nowhere else -- represent the pianist's only appearance at Prades, just a month or two before his tragic death in a plane crash.) Final word: In this set you get some of the greatest performing artists of all time playing some of the greatest chamber music ever written ..... and for an unbelievably low price. Unless you are completely averse to live music-making or have no tolerance at all for fallible sound, you need to own and hear these discs, over and over again!