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Robert Casadesus (piano)
The Complete French Columbia Recordings
rec. 1928-1939
APR 7404 [4 CDs: 281 mins]

In March 2019 Sony brought out its 65-CD Complete Columbia Album Collection devoted to the art of Robert Casadesus. In America, where he was based for the second half of his life, he recorded prolifically for the label from 1940 onwards. As part of their ‘French Piano School’ series APR’s release now allows collectors to dovetail the two elements of Casadesus’ recording career by presenting a 4-CD box that contains all the pianist’s 78s made for French Columbia between 1928 and the time he left for the US; the last session was made in June 1939. As an extra incentive there is also the first release of Mozart’s Coronation Concerto in a 1931 recording of which one 78 side (from the slow movement) is regrettably missing.

There is much variety and typical clarity and elegance to savour throughout the course of the box. There are eleven Scarlatti sonatas with rich tone, precision of articulation and refinement; also, too, some gabbled, fast tempi (the A major) and overemphatic phrasing (the B minor). Overall his Scarlatti leaves a curious impression – always lively, sometimes romantic, occasionally showy and erratic. The first disc features the two Mozart Concertos. No.24 in C minor - with Bigot in 1937 – was his favourite Mozart Concerto and he plays with fastidious purity, employs Saint-Saëns’ incendiary first movement cadenza, and reveals stoic poise in the slow movement. The orchestra is so-so. Edwin Fischer remains the more expressive exponent of this concerto, but Casadesus’ rather more reserved persona brings its own rewards. Concerto No.26 is bereft of the first 71 bars of the Larghetto and Walther Straram’s orchestra sounds rather more old fashioned than Bigot’s Paris Symphony. Casadesus is at his most vibrant here – his LP remake with Szell was not as lively as this – but drops notes at 5:05 in the first movement. The surviving matrices are all first takes, so were no second takes attempted? Was this a contributing reason for the concerto not being issued?

The second disc explores Mozart’s Rondo and Beethoven’s Les adieux sonata; the last fast and fiery with rich depth of tone and not under too much pedal. Schubert’s A major sonata is poised but rather impersonal but the little German Dances are a charming filler. With Bigot once again, and an unnamed orchestra, he is on unusually combative form in Weber’s Konzertstück. His June 1928 Schumann Études symphoniques comes from his earliest session in the set. Witty, dexterous, fluent and full of incident the retention of surface noise allows the listener to hear Casadesus’ tonal gradations though it’s not, perhaps, the most interpretatively probing reading.

He recorded Chopin’s Ballades at separate sessions between 1928 and 1930 and they are amongst the most successful of all pre-war recordings of these works. These are scrupulously manoeuvred readings, architecturally secure and expressively refined, yet generous. His solo Fauré is rather more mixed – the Prélude in D minor falls prey to some Casadesus ‘gabble’ - but the C minor Piano Quartet with Joseph Calvet, Léon Pascal and Paul Mas is deservedly famous. Co-ordination must have proved difficult because one of the sides went to a fifth take, but the ensemble finally nailed the wit and insouciance of the scherzo.

The final disc is all-French. There’s a delightful Séverac character study to enjoy and a dazzling Ravel Jeux d’eau as well as an example of Casadesus the composer in the shape of his deft and agile Flute Sonata with the impeccable René Le Roy. Georges Witkowski provides plenty of impressionistic, aqueous interest in his evocative Mon lac – though annotator Roger Nichols, who knows more about French music of this time than just about anyone else, isn’t a fan of this orchestral piece in which Witkowski, who conducts, frequently uses the piano as a colouristic device rather than as a soloistic agitator. But the great masterpiece here is Debussy’s Cello Sonata in the 1930 recording with Maurice Maréchal. It remains for many people the lodestar of French style in this work; supple, fleet, and beautifully textured. It exerts so strong a spell on me that it’s hard to listen to subsequent recordings with anything other than irritation and disappointment. To add to the pleasure the ‘filler’ for the two-disc Debussy 78 is also included; Caplet’s Danse des petits nègres from L’Epiphanie.
To have Nichols’ erudite booklet essay and Mark Obert-Thorn’s outstandingly good transfers is a bonanza and anyone remotely interested in the ‘pre-American’ Casadesus should hear these vital and athletic performances.

Jonathan Woolf

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Piano Sonata no.26 in E flat major, op.81a 'Les Adieux'
Epiphanie (d'apres une legende ethiopienne); Danse des petits negres
Casadesus, Robert
Flute Sonata, op.18
Pieces pittoresques (10) no.10 Scherzo-valse
Fryderyk CHOPIN
Ballades (4)
Mazurkas (51) no.13 in A minor, op.17 no.4
Cello Sonata in D minor, L135
Gabriel FAURÉ
Impromptus (6) no.5 in F sharp minor, op.102
Piano Quartet no.1 in C minor, op.15
Preludes, op.103 no.5 in D minor
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor, K491
Piano Concerto no.26 in D major, K537 'Coronation'
Rondo in D major, K485
Maurice RAVEL
Jeux d'eau
Keyboard Sonata in A major, K533
Keyboard Sonata in B minor, K27
Keyboard Sonata in B minor, K377
Keyboard Sonata in D major, K23
Keyboard Sonata in D major, K96
Keyboard Sonata in D major, K430
Keyboard Sonata in D minor, K9
Keyboard Sonata in E minor, K198
Keyboard Sonata in G major, K13
Keyboard Sonata in G major, K14
Keyboard Sonata in G major, K125
German Dances (12), D790 no.1 in D major; no.3 Landler; no.4 in D major; no.5 in B minor;
no.6 in G sharp minor; no.7 in A flat major; no.8 in A flat minor; no.11 in A flat major
Piano Sonata no.13 in A major, D664
Etudes Symphoniques, op.13
Waldszenen, op.82; no.7 Vogel als Prophet
Deodat de SEVERAC
Cerdana: Five Picturesque Etudes; V Le retour des Muletiers
Carl Maria von WEBER
Konzertstück in F minor, op.79 J282
Mon Lac
Robert Casadesus (piano)
Joseph Calvet (violin)
Leon Pascal (viola)
Paul Mas (cello)
Maurice Marechal (cello)
Rene Le Roy (flute)
Orchestre symphonique de Paris
Orchestre des Concerts Straram
Eugene Bigot
Walther Straram
Georges Witkowski

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