Notes and Editorial Reviews
Will wonders never cease! Here we have the first installment in a recorded survey of seven symphonies written by one of the great French pianists of the 20th century, Robert Casadesus (1899–1972), and from an English label using English forces, no less. After having been charmed and delighted by Casadesus’s three concertos for his own instrument—one for solo piano, the others for two or three pianists (the double concerto just came out on cpo), plus the pungently tuneful chamber works on vinyl (a Sextuor on Columbia, a Quintet on MGM), this writer never thought he’d ever live long enough to hear the whole symphonic cycle.
With a mentor like Ravel, Casadesus, who was already composing in his teens, made his debut as a
symphonist in 1935, when he was already in his mid-thirties. Dedicated to his illustrious spouse, fellow pianist Gaby Casadesus, this 27-minute work in the traditional four-movement format opens with a typically energetic Allegro risoluto, a kind of quick-walking music this reviewer thinks of as a fast promenade. In addition to Ravel and even a bit of Fauré later on, the precedents of the neo-Classical Roussel’s rhythmic élan and Jacques Ibert’s tonal virtuosity also play important generative roles in this idiom. But Casadesus’s creative impulses are quite mercurial, moving from the opening forward thrust to an equally characteristic interlude of piercingly pensive nostalgia, in which the sensual sonorities of Gallic woodwinds are especially prominent. Then a serenely calm Molto lento is followed by a “bien rythmé” scherzo that encloses a near-weightless trio quite reminiscent of the slow second movement. The finale—marked Allegretto grazioso intime—is something of a surprise: instead of plunging into a heavily-accented rondo as expected, the music has a fluid lyrical grace, almost like water in a gurgling fountain, ending on a note of reflective benediction.
The 20-minute Fifth Symphony, composed a quarter-century later in 1959–60, is subtitled “in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the death of Franz Joseph Haydn” and is conceived on a somewhat more modest scale than the First. Although making use of a “musical cryptogram” of the composer’s name, this work does not sound like a throwback to the aristocratic protocols of the 18th century. Marked by textures of flowing antiphony, its first three movements (Adagio-Lento-Menuet) are permeated by a sense of regretful melancholy, while the Presto spirituoso finale closes by evoking the sun-drenched and burgeoning splendor of the French countryside. What Haydn has to do with all this is left up to the listener’s free-associative imagination.
Casadesus’s Seventh and last Symphony marks quite a change from the preceding two works. Written during the composer’s final years (1967–1970) and making striking use of four vocalizing soloists and choral group, this work was ostensibly inspired by the Seven Day’s War and was later inscribed to the memory of George Szell, who died just before the premiere. This compact 17-minute, three-movement piece opens with a powerful Maestoso in which unison voices are heavily underlined by timpani. The air and light of the First and Fifth Symphonies are now cast in shadow and are followed by an Andante dolce featuring a ghostly kind of polyphony, which is almost always sung a cappella. The Presto con fuoco finale is a song of triumph that gradually mellows into a saturating aura of martial joyousness. Howard Shelley, who is well known as an excellent pianist, is a surprising choice for conductor, but he and his cohorts from the Northern Sinfonia do very well by this genuine but unpretentious music. They allow its innate refinement and elegance ample opportunity to declare and confirm its intensely Gallic temperament. We look forward to the remainder of this unexpected but significant undertaking, for which many Francophiles will remain eternally grateful. Vive la France!
Paul A. Snook, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 by Robert Casadesus
Period: 20th Century
Symphony no 7 by Robert Casadesus
Alexandra Gibson (Mezzo Soprano),
Mark Wilde (Tenor),
Michael Druiett (Bass),
Natasha Jouhl (Soprano)
Northern Sinfonia Chorus,
Gateshead Children's Choir
Period: 20th Century
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