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Robert CASADESUS (1899-1972)
Sextet for Piano and Wind Instruments, Op. 58 (1958)
Concerto for Three Pianos and Orchestra, Op. 65 (1964)*
Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano, Op. 34^ (1942)
Three Mediterranean Dances for Two Pianos, Op. 36 (1943)
Toccata, Op.40+ (1946)
Robert Casadesus, piano, w. Gaby and Jean+ Casadesus, pianos.
Zino Francescatti,^ violin. André Sagnier, flute, Lucien Debray, oboe, Marcel Jean, clarinet, Gérard Tantôt, bassoon, Roger Guérin, trumpet (Sextet).
Orchestre des Concerts Colonne/Pierre Dervaux (Stereo)*
rec. 1954 (Toccata), 1950 (Mediterranean Dances), 1949 (Violin Sonata), 1960 (Sextet), and 1966 (Concerto)
SONY CLASSICS 5054852 [66:11]

 

Fans of Robert Casadesus will be pleased with this CD survey of his works. Although not well known in this guise, Casadesus began composing around the age of fourteen. This was at about the time when, after a single year of formal studies, he took first prize for piano in a competition adjudicated by Fauré. His debut as pianist came at 18, and three years later he was awarded the Grand Prix Diémer ― named after his teacher, whose pupils included Cortot and Yves Nat. At 22, with Ravel witnessing the ceremony, Casadesus married his colleague-student Gabrielle l'Hôte, a considerable pianist in her own right who would come to fame as his musical partner.

During the European tour that followed, many who became central to his career got a first taste of his refined and spare playing style ― leagues from the prevailing post-romantic manner, and far better suited to the neo-classical music that was coming to the fore. While his Mozart recordings are generally cited as his main legacy, Casadesus gained favour with de Falla, Ravel, Roussel and Fauré, among others. By the 1930s, he was well along a celebrated career as pianist. This included playing with top orchestras under the entire alphabet of notable conductors: Ansermet, Barbirolli, Beecham, Bernstein, Celibidache, Karajan, Koussevitsky, Krips, Mengelberg, Mitropoulos, Monteux, Munch, Ormandy, Rodzinsky, Rosbaud, Schuricht, Stokowski, Szell, Toscanini, Bruno Walter, and Weingartner. His wife Gaby and he were perhaps the most renowned piano duo of their time, and his violin-and-piano duo with his friend Zino Francescatti was also very successful.

Despite the demands of this performing career, his output as a composer came to reach 69 opus numbers, comprising seven symphonies, three piano concertos, one for two pianos, another for three pianos and string orchestra, concertos for violin, flute and cello, vocal works, and chamber music that includes four string quartets, four string trios, two piano trios, a septet, violin and piano works, etc.

A wide range of his music is featured on this recording ― or recordings, since these five works involved sessions spanning almost 20 years. There are solo piano and chamber works for small and large groups, as well as his last concerto, for three pianos and string orchestra. They show Casadesus to be a composer of fairly conservative, tonal music characteristic of the mid-20th century: graceful, imaginative and well put together.

As for being well-crafted, it is odd to this listener that such a laudable pianist would set the rhythmic pulse of the vivacious Sardana, the first of his Three Mediterranean Dances, to such a wearing lack of variation, or to perform it with such little modulation. This is the suite’s exception, however, as the other two dances belong to a far more successful realm: the Sarabande being a mostly wistful piece that, in stillness and poetry, at times approaches the Satiesque. The closing dance, Tarantello, is a bravura piece for the Casadesus duo, with jaunty, sometimes raucous, sometimes graceful convolutions, suiting a very different facet of the two-piano genre.

This performance of his four-movement Violin Sonata No. 2 has the advocacy of Casadesus and Francescatti, and treads various fine lines between expressiveness and restraint. It includes moments of genuine sweetness, a part-pizzicato, sometimes jazzy movement with more than a few winning passages, and a melancholic adagio of some beauty. The Sextet for Piano and Wind Instruments is a sunny, approachable work, suggesting close attention paid to Poulenc, given its nifty harmonic interplays and the overall Gallic transparency. Despite its instrumentation, the textures of the Three-Piano Concerto never turn into an overly thick gruel: this is an appealing work full of musical twists and turns, perhaps one or two too many to leave a clear stamp. So, much like the Sextet, it is mostly bright and enjoyable, inhabiting a lightweight realm that will not likely appeal to those who require Teutonic grandiloquence from their piano concertos.

Being a well-presented collection of finely-crafted works, rich in ideas, and with its fair share of felicities, it is curious that this music seldom rises above the moderately engaging. This could result from the lack of a critical mass of individuating tics or quirks to save it from a certain anonymity; then again, this is only an hour or so of music, and not every composer is a Martinů in distinctiveness. The Chandos label will soon release three of the seven Casadesus symphonies: his First, Fifth and Seventh. This is likely to assure him a fuller assessment as a composer, and he might yet come to figure on his era’s musical map in a way that has eluded him so far, at least partly due to the scant exposure.

Perhaps, on the other hand, despite this music’s good humour, its overall lack of weight or gravity may entail a certain detachment. Indeed, it is not Casadesus’s close friend Ravel who most often comes to mind in these recordings, but Darius Milhaud, whose music has many well-chosen moments and a few striking ones, but about whom few music lovers affirm a passionate connection.

Although none of this CD’s recorded sound is beyond the pale, its quality varies according to the dates, occasionally calling for some forgiveness. None of it is digital, for instance, and only the Concerto is in stereo. The 1949 provenance of the violin sonata makes for a dry, thin sound, and Francescatti is miked much too close ― although here, as in the other works, for artistic advocacy one could not ask for better.

Despite minor misgivings, then, those familiar with contemporary classical who are curious to explore the 20th century beyond the big names could do far worse than to spend time with Casadesus the composer. In that context, this CD is well recommended.

Bert Bailey



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