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Robert CASADESUS (1899-1972)
Symphony No.1 Op.19 (1934-35) [26:56]
Symphony No.5 Op.60 “sur le nom de Haydn” (1959-60) [20:00]
Symphony No.7 Op.68 “Israel” (1967-70) [16:57]
Natasha Jouhl (soprano); Alexandra Gibson (mezzo); Mark Wilde (tenor); Michael Druiett (bass)
Gateshead Children’s Choir; Northern Sinfonia Chorus
Northern Sinfonia/Howard Shelley
Rec. Jubilee Hall, Gosforth, Newcastle, October 2003
CHANDOS CHAN 10263 [64:13]

That Casadesus was also a composer won’t come as a surprise to most people by now. We’ve had performances of his chamber works, amongst other things, and now we have premiere recordings of three symphonies, ones that span his compositional life.

The First was written between 1934 and 1935. It’s by some way the longest of the three and from the sound of it owes a substantial part of its inheritance to the influence of Roussel. It has a sure sense of movement, a fine array of wind colours – some most delightfully fulsome in their melodic generosity – and a sure command of orchestral procedures. The slow movement is probably the most attractive of the four. Its transparency and gauze-like sense of innocence and gentleness are idiomatically conveyed by Shelley and the Northern Sinfonia. Dynamics here register with often thrilling depth – so quiet and finely spun – even though on a strictly thematic basis the themes themselves are not especially distinctive. But Casadesus certainly knew how to distil atmosphere. The scherzo wears a rather aristocratic Gallic mien, its central tranquillo section recalling the Lento with great precision. This leads on to the lissom Allegretto ending, almost deliberately anti-heroic in its unhurried, treading water sort of way. A curious symphony really, structurally speaking, and not necessarily successful – but captivating in parts.

A quarter of a century later he wrote his Fifth Symphony “sur le nom de Haydn” though there’s nothing especially Haydnesque about it. The annotator says that the dedicatory nature of the work shows Casadesus’s willingness in general to promote composers whose music was seldom performed in the early part of the twentieth century. I’m not sure that particularly applied in 1959, if indeed it did earlier to an extent greater than other major composers. Perhaps Casadesus was also remembering those piano works dedicated to Haydn so much earlier in the century – the theme resembles Ravel’s Minuet sur le nom d'Haydn. Whatever the motivation may have been the Fifth is rather lacklustre and lacks those qualities of illuminating idiosyncrasy that elevated the First Symphony. The wind writing is once again a strong feature as is the spontaneous and lissom writing in the rather giocoso finale – it’s actually a Presto spirituoso.  But in terms of influence Casadesus seems to have been listening to Hindemith and the Frenchman’s ideas do seem rather foursquare.

The Seventh Symphony was his last completed composition and written at the time of the Six Day’s War. It was dedicated to George Szell. It includes solo voices and a chorus for whom he writes melismas, and wordless lines. The tone is reverential and penitential, moving onwards from the first movement’s affirmative tread. The central movement uses two solo voices, beneficent and calming, with a children’s choir adding innocence and hope in their slowly ascending and descending lines. The finale brings back the full chorus and some brass for some stentorian and rather more brittle writing. But Casadesus still retains those up and down patterns, ones that give a satisfying sense of cohesiveness to this compact, odd, sixteen-minute work.  

The performances are all excellent though in truth the music is variable. I warmed to the warmth and piety of the last, late symphony but the First is the strongest of the triptych and the one you should start with.

Jonathan Woolf

see also Review by Rob Barnett


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