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Robert Casadesus Reconsidered

Discussion in 'Music & Music Streaming Services' started by Todd_A, Oct 23, 2005.

  1. Todd_A

    Todd_A
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    Now that I’ve finished with the Scarlatti sonatas, I figured it was about time that I relisten to one of my other gargantuan boxes o’ goodies to see if what I heard the first time through still holds up. What better choice than my beloved (and now hard-to-find and accordingly expensive) Robert Casadesus Edition? (Who’d a thunk: CDs as a potential investment?) Anyway, I regularly pull out and spin some of the recordings – the Mozart piano concertos, LvB violin sonatas, Ravel solo music, and Faure violin sonatas – but many of the other discs just sit in the long box without an airing. So that seemed a good place to start this occasional series of posts. So many discs (29 in all) gave me a variety of choices. I opted for one I’ve not heard since the first time around: a collection of works for piano and orchestra. The works are Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto, Weber’s Konzertstück, Saint-Saens’ Fourth Piano Concerto, and Faure’s Ballade for Piano and Orchestra. Yes, this would do nicely.

    I listened in order, so that means Liszt first. Truth to tell, Casadesus’ style and Liszt’s writing don’t really make an ideal pairing. Casadesus, technically capable as he was, was more about taste and restraint and solid musical judgment and less about virtuosic flash. But even so, this is a surprisingly good recording. No, Casadesus does not play with the strength, virtuosity, and intensity of, say, Richter or Janis or Ogdon, but when needed, Casadesus does summon a nicely diabolical sound and he does play strongly. Elsewhere, he plays with deft articulation and speed, and in the softer passages he shines. Perhaps this is soft-edged Liszt overall, but it is good. George Szell leads his Clevelanders in an extremely fine accompaniment (dig the solo cello contributions!), and the 1952 mono sound is very good.

    Casadesus teamed up with the same forces at the same time for the Weber piece. Here’s a work I’ve heard only a few times, and that’s been quite alright with me. This is a somewhat shallow showpiece (and was apparently part of Liszt’s traveling repertoire), though even it has its moment. The slow, dark, dramatic opener helps set the mood for the dazzling virtuosity of the second part. Casadesus not only doesn’t let the listener down, he positively sparkles. The third section of the work starts with a grand, gaudy orchestral passages, but then it’s got more of that dazzling showpiece writing. No, this is not heavy fare, and I won’t be collecting multiple versions, but all involved make it sound at least decent.

    Next up is Saint-Saens’ Fourth. What an appropriate work given that I consider Saint-Saens a fourth-rate composer. This time, Casadesus is joined by Lenny and his band in a 1961 recording. It turns out to be a fine match. The orchestral playing really deserves some mention: Lenny can pour on the melodrama in places (especially in the second movement), it’s true, but he can also lead a remarkably light accompaniment, with some extra fine playing by the winds. (The flute writing is quite fetching.) And one can just detect the influence of Wagner in some of the string writing. To the piano part, well, it’s in good hands. Casadesus never overdoes anything, and his light, clear playing and refined tone make this much nicer to listen to than Stephen Hough’s award winning recording. Not a great piece, but one I may in fact revisit.

    The final work is the Faure, with Lenny and his band again the collaborators. Casadesus has Faure down, with a lovely tone and somewhat detached but never cold feel. (Why did he record so little solo Faure – just the Op 103 preludes in the entire box?) Light and flitting, or slightly heated and searching, it’s all top notch. The orchestral writing is accomplished and aurally perfumed. Okay, so this isn’t a masterpiece in the genre, but it’s still worthy of some repeated listens.

    So, disc one down, and my opinion of the great Mr Casadesus is pretty much the same as before I listened. I don’t really expect anything else. But the Liszt piece at least shows that Casadesus can do well in music he’s not usually associated with. So many choices for the next disc, what shall I choose . . .
     
  2. Todd_A

    Todd_A
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    Tonight’s listening was an all-Bach affair. The long box contains one disc given over entirely to the old master, with four solo works and one violin sonata. The solo works open with the Toccata, BWV 914 (labeled BMW in the liner notes), and the disc gets off to a less than perfect start. Cool, aloof, and pedal free, the opening section is stark and serious. The second section is a bit more flexible, but even so it’s not as inviting as other keyboardists garner, and there’s a marked lack of rhythmic snap. But all is so tasteful and respectful of the music, that it’s hard to call it bad. Indeed, the inexorable forward momentum at the end of the piece is quite attractive. But it’s worth pointing out now that the first three works all display some degree of aloofness, with Casadesus intent on presenting this most august music in an abstract, serious way.

    Even so, the Italian Concerto, BWV 917 is quite a bit better. The opening is quick, energetic, clean ‘n’ clear, and decidedly pianistic in approach. Perhaps the tail end of the opening movement approaches an aggressive style, but fortunately, Casadesus never tips over into that realm. The second movement is subdued and eminently tasteful – as Casadesus’ pianism is inherently prone to – and the more dominant right hand playing over a most sensibly restrained left hand only adds to the allure. The concluding Presto is presto-rific. Really, it’s light, quick, and clean, and just plain fun to listen to, even if that serious aloofness never completely disappears.

    Next up is the second Partita, BWV 826. The opening is dark, heavy, and serious, with some notably hard, strong chords cranking up the drama. The movement quickly passes to a lighter style. The Allemande is more flexible and rhythmically sprung, and more in line with what some people may want from Bach on the piano. The Courante is vigorous and strong, with some forceful yet perfectly controlled playing. The Sarabande is more delicate and possesses a more variegated color palette, though Casadesus avoids extremes of rubato and pedaling. It’s a model of taste and is perfectly attractive. The Rondeaux is pointed and lively, and the concluding Capriccio manages to sound both energetic and strict at the same time. I’ve heard better takes on this work, but this is still good.

    The three preceding works were all recorded together in 1958, so perhaps Casadesus had assumed a stricter, more serious approach to Bach, because the Sixth French Suite, BWV 817, from 1951, is lighter overall, and much more successful. The opening Allemande is flexible, light, and, well, fun, and it gives way to an almost glittering and most certainly graceful Courante. The Sarabande is slow yet gloriously flexible – offering a lesson on how to pedal just so. The Gavotte is the most danceable of all the movements of any work up to this point, even if it is a bit formal (a dance requiring formal dress, if you will), and by way of contrast, the Polonaise is abstract and ‘pretty.’ The Menuet is perhaps a bit precious, but that matters little (if at all), especially when the Bouree and Gigue are both so full of life and charm. Of the solo works, this is unquestionably the best recording of the bunch, and one I really should visit more often.

    The disc concludes with the Second Violin Sonata, BWV 1015, from 1947, with Francescatti the fiddler. (Of course.) What to write other than this is a good time recording that’s about as un-period as can be. Francescatti plays big and bold and rich, with some rather hefty vibrato by current standards, and Casadesus’ playing is not particularly baroque. Indeed, the piece takes on a classical or even romantic feel at times, and if that sounds like a condemnation, it’s not meant to be that at all. There is such energy and such perfect coordination between the two players, that everything they do is a success on its own terms. The ancient sound is pretty spiffy, too. (CBS really nailed early post-war sound.) The disc ends on a high note.

    At the end of the disc, one is faced with the reality that Casadesus is not a Bach pianist of the very highest caliber. His absolutely top-tier artistry makes everything well worth hearing, though, the last two works, in particular.
     
  3. Todd_A

    Todd_A
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    The third stop on the second time through the glorious long box finds Casadesus in the familiar territory of chamber music and music for piano and orchestra. Only three works are included: Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata and Symphonic Variations, and Ernest Chausson’s Concert for piano, violin, and string quartet.

    The disc opens with the violin sonata. I really need to listen to this piece some more! In some ways, this piece is the antithesis of what I like: it is unabashedly romantic – late romantic – music filled with lush music and heated emotion. It can sound sentimental and overripe. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed rehearing this recording. Zino Francescatti is of course the violinist, so any concerns about pianist and violinist not working together optimally are immediately eliminated. So one gets to revel in Francescatti’s big, ripe tone throughout the opening movement, as well as Casadesus’ leaner accompaniment. They don’t hold back; glorious sound and a sensual feel permeate the entire opening movement. The second movement begins with a feverish opening by Casadesus, followed by an equally heated entry by his partner. After a couple minutes the piece eases up on the intensity a bit, but it is still unabashedly romantic in every way, and when the more intense music returns, it all sounds right. The third movement is slower and more introspective – sort of. The piece never shakes that ripe sound. Blessedly so. And the concluding movement is jaunty and more cheerful, and perhaps a bit naughty. Casadesus and Francescatti make an ideal team here, the pianist resisting the temptation to play with an all-out syrupy tone, and the violin taking his playing right up to that threshold and generating real heat. It’s a doozy. The 1947 sound, while obviously dated, is extremely good for its time, and the transfer is devoid of all surface noise while still sounding full.

    Alas, Franck’s other piece, the Symphonic Variations, doesn’t do as much for me. This is another piece where I’ve accumulated multiple versions (4 or 5, I believe) without trying, obviously because the piece is a popular filler. I just can’t get into it. And if that’s the case here, I can’t imagine a recording where I would get into it. Casadesus is joined by Eugene Ormandy and his Philly band in a 1958 recording. All of the elements are there: Casadesus is in top form, easily dispatching the score with precision, inviting tone, and taste. Ormandy is in top form, too, leading a taut, well-drilled performance, and the Philly band, well, of course it’s on, and the string playing is simply divine. Yet I can’t get into it. The material leaves me bored, and I can’t remember much about the piece. There’s no catchy tune, no massive, powerful crescendos that make me sit on the edge of my seat, no wild, pounding solo part. It’s just there. I guess I can’t like everything.

    In between these two works comes Chausson’s Concert. Francescatti is again on hand – this set is almost as much the Francescatti Edition as it is the Casadesus Edition – and they are joined by the Giulet Quartet for this 1954 recording. This is a big piece in every way. It’s long – over 37’ – and Chausson uses his nicely beefy ensemble to produce a few nice things. The opening movement sounds like Gallicized Brahms, with rich, dense scoring, and some nifty unison writing, and a big, quasi-orchestral sound. It sounds perhaps a bit too sentimental here and there, but the heaving, swelling string crescendos sound so good that that hardly matters. One neat feature, or rather, features, are the more traditional violin sonata interludes where the dynamic duo get to strut their stuff. Anyway, the second movement, a short Siciliene, is oddly successful. It is syrupy and sentimental, yet, much as with La Boheme, I just can’t resist The third movement – Grave – is more serious, with Casadesus acting as sort of a solid foundation for all of the string writing. Some of the attempts at emotional urgency and seriousness miss the mark a bit, though, and the movement seems to go too long. Same with the concluding Animé. Yes, it’s animated and pointed and filled with a number of intriguing passages, but it’s just too long. Indeed, the whole work is too long for the material. It’s a decent work, but truthfully, I don’t envision playing it too often.

    Note the relative absence of comments on Casadesus’ playing. That’s because it’s all pretty much as good as one could want and displays all of his standard traits. That is, it’s just about perfect. And I find it quite interesting that Casadesus as an artist was so devoted to chamber music. How many big name pianists today give themselves over to so much ensemble work today? Relatively few. The big, showy concertos, the virtuoso show pieces, the Big Name solo works, those are what get the most attention. More pianists like Casadesus are needed, methinks.
     
  4. Todd_A

    Todd_A
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    As much as I love Casadesus’ pianism, including, obviously, French music, his Debussy has struck me as not quite the best out there. It’s good – very good – but when compared to, say, Gieseking or Michelangeli or (now) Ericourt, he just doesn’t have that last bit of Debussyian refinement. But I clearly needed to revisit the two-disc set of some of Debussy’s solo output and one work for piano four hands. I decided to listen straight through, no jumping, so that meant starting off with some small pieces. Masques is delivered with assured playing, the rhythmic content of the gallop solid, and the minute coloristic elements nicely done. No, he doesn’t bring the same level of refinement in the latter regard as Gieseking or Ericourt, but the light, precise fingerwork makes it fun to hear. L’Isle joyeuse is direct, bubbly, less colorful and is here presented in a somewhat hazy or almost dreamy fashion. The rigorous middle section is played brilliantly and with marked clarity.

    After a couple “small” works, it was time for meatier fare, here the two books of Images. I love these pieces – they’ve always been among my favorite works by Mr Debussy – not least for the awesome (in the accurate sense of the word) amount of invention and creativity he packs into these small gems. Reflets dans l’eau finds Casadesus playing with that delicious, almost percussion-free sound that so benefits this music, and while he certainly plays with greater color than in the first two works, he doesn’t create a wonderful, somewhat amorphous wash of sound that I so enjoy. (Having listened to Ericourt’s take only a few days ago surely helped bring what’s not there into focus.) The Hommage a Rameau is here sober and serious, and perhaps a touch aloof, and certainly darker than I find ideal. That written, it’s still superb; Casadesus makes one listen in anticipation – always a good sign. Casadesus’ take on the concluding Mouvement is fine but ultimately too measured. A slowish start doesn’t help, and though the tension and virtuosity pick up as the piece progresses, it never dazzles quite enough.

    The second book sounds better overall. Cloches a travers les feuilles opens with a unique, deft mix of sternness and dreaminess (yeah, I know, that reads a bit strange), and it then tips over to a more sustained dream-world sound. The rhythmic complexity is dealt with nicely, but Casadesus ultimately makes that aspect less prominent. Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut is certainly atmospheric, of that there’s no doubt, with the mood tending toward a darkish, disoriented sound with the hypnotic left hand leading the way and lending support to the at times almost mystical right hand playing. It’s very good, but man, Ericourt, he’s even better! Poissons d’or is played straighter than normal, as is Casadesus’ style. The lightly percussive sound with a ripe bass sound is attractive, but I can’t say it conjured up an image (Ha!) of a little fish in a pond. No matter, this book is still worth hearing again.

    Before the next big offering, the good people at Sony France threw in the Deux Arabesques as a sort of interlude. The first piece is unaffected and pleasantly romantic and shorn of excess anything. The playing is clean and warm and the tone inviting. The second piece is all wit, fun, and charm, and these little pieces sound superb, indeed, under Mr Casadesus’ hands.

    Now to the great Estampes, another of my favorite Debussy works. The Pagodes lack a sufficiently “eastern” sound. That’s all there is to it, and that means that this recording is just not up to snuff. I’m not dismissing it outright, but sometimes you just gotta draw a line in the sand. To be nice, the playing is articulate and meticulous. But then, this is Casadesus. The Soiree dans Grenade fares much better. Perhaps Mr Casadesus’ background guaranteed a certain affinity with Spanish-inspired works, but here the piece comes off as an inspired mix of Le Gibet and something, um, influenced by Albeniz, though with a clearly Gallic flavor. The rhythmic element isn’t as insistently rocking as with Ericourt, but its uneven feel is nicely played. Jardins sous lapluie is crisp and energetic, but still displays enough delicacy and intricacy to bring out some of the smallest details.

    The first disc concludes with a snappy, upbeat version of Children’s Corner. Nothing really jumps out and grabs one’s attention as if to say “This is as groundbreaking and mesmerizing and brilliant as the Preludes!”, but nothing lags or sags. Certainly, Golliwog’s Cakewalk offers a chipper, fun conclusion to the whole thing, and the 1950 sound is the best from the two discs. (Everything else mentioned thus far was recorded in 1954.)

    The second disc is given over to all of the Preludes and the Petite Suite for four hands. Something to note immediately is how swiftly Casadesus gets through all two dozen pieces: just under 66.’ That’s quick. Granted, I don’t expect every pianist to indulge his or her fancy as Zimerman does, but such short timings seem to imply a pretty straight run through. Something else to notice is how little recording time these works needed. According to the liner notes – which can be wrong, of course – each book (yes, book!) was completed in one day. That would seem to imply that Casadesus was familiar with the works to undertake something that audacious. Anyway, the first book was laid down in 1953, and initial concerns, if concerns they be, of a straight run through the pieces is pretty much what happens. Danseuses de Delphes is restrained and poised, befitting the subject, but it a bit light on color. Voiles has a nicely light open and the right hand dominates the proceedings (though the strong middle section sees something approaching parity in that regard), but it’s not, well, breezy enough. Le vent dans la plaine has a gliding open evoking a gentle breeze, but then it builds up nicely, almost to a gale. Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir comes off a bit gloomy and introspective, and is too heavy to be ideally sensuous. Les collines d’Anacapri is suitably buoyant but, strangely, is not ideally clear. The love song in the middle is quite lovely, though. Des pas sur la neige is mostly slow (in the context of the other pieces as played here) and sad and doesn’t really offer as much contrast as I like. Ce qu’a vu le vent d’Ouest is dark and tumultuous, with a rousing and imposing rolling bass line, and the fearsome buildup and powerful middle section makes one anticipate seeing the Erlkönig. La fille aux cheveux de lin is simply lovely. And refreshing, too! La serenade interrompue here sounds slightly sardonic, as though composer and pianist are mocking the guitar and guitarists, and the chirpy staccato Casadesus musters cuts the mustard in terms of evoking thoughts of the git -tar. La Cathedrale engloutie is wonderfully “impressionistic,” and massively powerful where needed. The first book ends with a La danse de Puck and a Minstrels that both sound suitably light and comical. Overall, Casadesus plays the first book well, but when one considers the big three, and especially Michelangeli’s stupefyingly great recording (on DG), it’s clear that something is missing.

    It’s much, much harder to write the same thing about the second book, recorded in 1954. Much like Richter’s BBC Legends recording of both books, the second seems to fire the imagination of the pianist a lot more than the first. Casadesus doesn’t appear to have recorded much “modern” (or, for him, contemporary) music, but these forward looking pieces indicate that he should have. Brouillards sounds bizarre, eerie, dark. And Casadesus plays it splendidly. (Did Ligeti gain any inspiration for his Musica ricercata from this piece I wonder?) Feuilles mortes sounds positively (or negatively?) captivating, with Casadesus playing the dense writing with utmost clarity yet never losing the somber feel. La puerta del Vino sounds like nothing less than abstracted Spanish music, with the insistent left hand rhythm and right hand explosions rendering this dance piece quite undanceable. Les fees sont d’exquises danseuses is fleet and agile, shorn of perpetually pesky percussiveness, and manages to sound playful and serious at the same time. Bruyeres, it’s sunny and direct, yet richer and more complex than it would seem if merely listening without utter focus. General Lavine - eccentric sounds appropriately comical and pompous and Casadesus’ wonderful clarity only serves to highlight those elements. La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune sounds more disoriented and uncentered than I was expecting (though the meticulously played descending run is amazing) and evokes the sound world of Pelleas amazingly well. Ondine is here less sexually alluring and more mysterious – though she’s still a tease. And she dazzles in the end. Hommage a S Pickwick is another comic, biting, and pompous work (Debussy seems to have requited that British-French thing). Canope, by contrast, sounds reserved, disconsolate, and uncentered. Les tierces alternees comes across as agile and articulate, and Casadesus’ impeccable taste prevents him from overcooking the piece, if you will. The book ends with a dazzling and unabashedly showy Feux d’artifice, ending this magnificent collection with an ivory based bang. My miniature descriptions really don’t do either the pieces or Casadesus justice; suffice it to say that this is a remarkably good recording of the second book and demonstrates that Casadesus could occasionally get inside Debussy’s elusive world as well as Ravel’s. Well, almost.

    The Debussy survey ends with the Petite Suite for Four Hands, with Gaby Casadesus joining her husband in this 1959 recording. Has there ever been a piano tandem more perfectly and completely in sync with each other as these two? I don’t think that’s even possible. Anyway, they play this brief and basically sunny work with French refinement and sheer happiness from start to stop. It’s not Debussy’s best work, but this makes as good a case as any for it.

    So my journey continues. I figured I should revisit Casadesus’ Debussy, even with its shortcomings, before rehearing his incomparable Ravel. Or that’s what I thought. Memory is tricky. Aural memory, especially. Perhaps it’s only after hearing more refined and better recordings – like Ericourt – and soaking up even more Gieseking and Michelangeli (and Moravec, too!) that one can appreciate just how good even the second-tier players are. Casadesus is better than I remember, though he’s certainly not the best. And no better evidence of the fallibility of memory and initial judgment exists than Casadesus’ recording of the second book of the Preludes. It is a top notch recording, plain and simple. Habitually labeling artists (and composers) results in unfair and inaccurate labels. Well, perhaps not all of the time, but certainly in the case of great artists. This is good stuff.
     
  5. Todd_A

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    Continuing on, I decided to give some more Faure a spin. The big box contains one disc given over entirely to works by Faure, including both Violin Sonatas, the first Piano Quartet, and a couple Op 103 Preludes. A nice mix, I thought, and so it proved to be.

    The disc opens with the Quartet in a recording from 1935 with members of the Calvet Quartet. The very first thing one notices is the above average sound for the period, and right after that one notices some “old-fashioned” music making. There’s noticeably more portamento from the strings than one expects today, and rubato is liberally applied. Those are good things to me, so that just helped things out. Anyway, the piece opens with a somewhat conservative adherence to form, but one can hear some ripe (but not overripe!) romanticism. The strings draw one in, and then there’s Casadesus, somewhat in the background, playing just a smidgeon cooler than his cohorts. This contrast serves to make the whole thing more attractive. The Scherzo is mostly pure fun with all that plucky pizzicato playing, and Casadesus does a fine job mirroring the strings. The Adagio is simply gorgeous, and it does veer straight into a syrupy sound, but, dagnabbit, I like it. It never quite ends up being excessively sentimental or too syrupy, but even if it did, the rich strings with a healthy degree of vibrato and Casadesus’ lighter playing make it basically irresistible. The final movement opens with a rich flood o’ music, the strings pouring forth gorgeous melodies over a rolling piano accompaniment. Again, Casadesus shows his sympathy for chamber music, and his willingness to be part of an ensemble – and one that recedes into the background on occasion – really benefits all involved.

    The two Violin Sonatas follow in 1953 recordings made with Zino Francescatti. Of course. The first, early work is rooted firmly in 19th Century Romanticism, though with nice French restraint. The opening is suitably demonstrative and “big” and alluring, with Francescatti’s tone even and rich and Casadesus’ playing ideally matched. The Andante, by contrast, is slower, perhaps a bit melancholy, with a probing violin part. No excesses are to be heard; only an extended piece of musical beauty fills one’s ears. The third movement again contrasts nicely with its predecessor, being quick, bubbly, and almost virtuosic, though in a purely satisfying way. To finish things off, the sonata concludes in much the same manner it opens. But what of Casadesus’ playing? As with all of his recordings with Francescatti, he makes a perfect partner for the fiddler. He’s a bit cooler, but his playing is suitably “romantic” where needed, and it’s always articulate, accurate, and attractive sounding. There’s really nothing to criticize.

    Not surprisingly, the same things hold true for the second sonata. This work is somewhat more elusive. It’s seemingly more compact, less showy, and less virtuosic, yet it’s denser, more complex, and, ultimately, more moving. The introspective writing and clean playing make it both more direct and more thoughtful. Something else I rather enjoy – and find remarkable – are the amazingly quick, seamless transitions between sections. The piece will be moving along briskly, then, with the most compact yet inevitable transition imaginable, move to a slow section. I can’t adequately describe it, but the Dynamic Duo more than adequately play it. The second movement combines what sounds even simpler and more moving with sheer beauty. There’s a slight tension or frustration or longing in the music, too, that makes it compelling. The final movement continues in a similar mood, with the lovely writing informed by some hints of dissonance and something unresolved. It is a remarkable piece. And the two artists play it all superbly.

    The disc closes with the First and Third Op 103 Preludes. What a shame Casadesus did not record more of Faure’s solo music, because he just seems right for it. Both pieces are played in an understated, subdued, shaded manner, with each minor variation in volume or tone carrying great meaning. This is music shorn of excess and meaningless gesture and distilled to its purest form, if you will. Casadesus’ style just blends in perfectly.

    Summation: An extraordinary disc.
     

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