Looking back at a forward-thinking cellist
On April 4, cellist Kate Kayaian performs a lunchtime recital at King’s Chapel including Gaspar Cassadó’s Suite for Solo Cello. The Spanish-born Cassadó (1897-1966), a student and protégé of his fellow Catalonian Pablo Casals, became, for a time, one of the world’s leading soloists. After World War II, the fiercely anti-fascist Casals — and the fiercely loyal coterie surrounding Casals — leveled the dubious accusation that Cassadó had collaborated with Axis regimes. (Cassadó — “all dove and no serpent,” in the words of his colleague Yehudi Menuhin — had done his best to maneuver his career around such powers, rather than confronting them head-on, like Casals.) Student and teacher eventually reconciled, but it is only comparatively recently that Cassadó’s playing and composing has been reevaluated on its own, thoroughly individual merits.
In addition to being a virtuoso and a composer, Cassadó was also a tinkerer, aiming to increase his instrument’s versatility and sonic power. He was the first cellist to perform in public on a cello fully outfitted with steel strings, rather than gut. He engineered a fingerboard that he could adjust up or down to compensate for the climate-induced contraction and expansion of the cello’s wooden bridge. He replaced the tailpiece — where the lower ends of the strings connect to the cello — with four heavy, adjustable steel springs. He swung those connections out from the body of the instrument, all in pursuit of freer vibration and greater volume.
The steel strings became common practice, but none of Cassadó’s other innovations did. In a way, the ongoing enshrinement of classical music’s long history neutralized Cassadó’s ingenuity. The repertoire had become dominated by works designed for older instruments; Cassadó’s amplified tone was criticized as being too metallic, too harsh — too different from “traditional” cello tone. The more the classical-music past has persisted into the present, the more present-day instruments have necessarily hewed to the past.
In his composing, Cassadó had indirectly undercut such authenticities. Like his contemporary Fritz Kreisler, Cassadó made numerous arrangements of older works, and under that guise — like Kreisler — he sometimes passed off his own music as having been written by some past master. Most famous (or notorious) is a Toccata that Cassadó attributed to the early-17th-century composer Girolamo Frescobaldi, but was almost certainly Cassadó’s own invention. Its provenance has been debunked, but the piece remains a recital staple. Cassadó’s attempts to modernize his instrument may not have caught on, but at least one of his anachronisms hung around, tweaking the canon.
Cellist Kate Kayaian performs music of Bach and Cassadó at King’s Chapel, April 4, 12:15 p.m. Suggested donation $3. 617-227-2155; www.kings-chapel.org