In his words

My first prize in piano

The day of my first prize in piano-which I had at an early age -, my father nicely told me, giving me a hug, ‘That’s perfect, but you don’t know anything!’

And that was marvellous ! Because, at the age of 14, I could have become vain, asking to give concerts immediately…

So, my first concert – my first recital – I gave in 1917, knowing that I would be going into the army in ’18. Consequently, it wasn’t to launch myself – it was just to show people that I existed ! So I gave my first recital when I was 17. But I really began my career at 21.

It was my aunt, my father’s sister, who taught me everything, but she was fearsome, strict : I could hear her from the back of the flat: ‘Too fast, Robert, too fast! Play more slowly, play more slowly !’

My father was always travelling because he was an actor, singer and also a composer. So he was always on tour, with Sacha Guitry and other actors of the period.

When he returned to Paris, it was to spoil me, it wasn’t to read the reports of my bad behavior. In any event, I was not badly behaved: I was not an enfant terrible

Robert Casadesus and Louis Diémer

In Paris, Robert Casadesus was the pupil of Louis Diémer. Robert Casadesus tells us about the personality of that great pedagogue.

You know that Monsieur Diémer was the student of Risler and naturally admired Liszt greatly, but he knew Chopin’s music perfectly, and we had a simple, classic tradition of Chopin’s music that was, in my opinion, top notch. And long afterwards, I heard the great pianist Francis Planté, who played the piano for me from 5 to 7 in the evening at Mont-de-Marsan, and who had had his first prize in piano at the Conservatoire at the age of 10 (and Chopin was on the jury), three months before Chopin’s death.

When Chopin died- you know that Chopin had formed a trio with Alard and Franchomme, this trio naturally stopped playing for years. But when the 15-year-old Planté had become an extraordinary pianist, Franchomme and Alard took him into the trio and, owing to that, Planté was able to know Chopin’s interpretation exactly and he also took on Chopin’s students. And I asked him specific questions about Chopin’s interpretation, and he was quite precise on this point: Chopin played simply!

– Did Diémer’s technique already bear the seeds of modern piano technique ?

No, I don’t think so because modern piano technique is often much too busy-there are too many hand movements. Diémer himself, when he played the piano, articulated too much-he was too much of a harpsichordist. But with students, he always asked for a very nice legato and had an excellent method. In his class, all his students had to play Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, all the original works of Bach, that were too often lost, because, well after Diémer, a lot of people came to play you organ transcriptions, making noise with Bach that wasn’t written for that.

We played original Bach works with Diémer, we played all the Beethoven sonatas-it was truly wonderful as a technique, and he was interested in everything. Thus, in his class we played all of Brahms-and that as of 1900. And he, who didn’t like modern music, nonetheless forced us to play all of Debussy, everything of Ravel’s that came out, everything! He didn’t care for it but he tried to understand and, naturally, since he was speaking to young people, and-I remember when I was 14 or 15, I adored L’Isle joyeuse, Poissons d’or and Gaspard de la nuit-well, we played them in class. It was admirable instruction: never did that man ask us to play the piano like him-he left the student to his or her own personality.

As for myself, being a pupil of Diémer, I gave the first performance of one of the six Etudes for the left hand that Saint-Saëns had composed and given to Diémer, saying: ‘Have your students play that’. And I must say, as I was the youngest in the class (at that time I was only 14), I was something of Monsieur Diémer’s pet-you know, the spoilt little boy! -, and he gave me the best etude, the Bourrée pour la main gauche. And Saint-Saëns heard me play it and patted me on the cheek, saying : ‘That’s very good, little chap’ ! But that was all. You know, Saint-Saëns was not very good-natured – he was quite stiff…

Robert Casadesus and Maurice Ravel

Robert Casadesus and Maurice Ravel

Robert Casadesus interviewed by Myriam Soumagnac on his admiration for French composers, speaks about his meeting Maurice Ravel in 1922, when the latter had heard him play at the Théâtre du Vieux Colombier in so-called avant-garde concerts :

The first time I played a Ravel piece, I played him Le Gibet, which is a part of Gaspard de la nuit.

He said : ‘Ha! You, you’re not a pianist.’

‘Why ?’ I asked.

He responded: ‘You’re a composer; because you have the courage to play Le Gibet as I conceived it, which is a slow piece – even boring I might say – but which must be played like that. And virtuoso pianists don’t want to play like that. They double the tempo and do it much faster. That’s why I think you’re a composer!’

Robert Casadesus and America

Recollections of Robert Casadesus on his activities in America :

Since 1935, I have played in America every year. This is my 18th tour and I give some forty concerts a year.

I’ve played with the great American orchestras: with Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic, with Monteux and the San Francisco Philharmonic, Koussevitzky in Boston, Charles Munch in Boston, Barbirolli in New York, Fritz Reiner, who is a very great conductor who’s not very well known here, in Pittsburgh, Ormandy in Philadelphia, George Szell in Cleveland, Mitropoulos in New York…

Mozart, Toscanini, and America

In 1935, during my New York appearance, I played Mozart’s ‘Coronation’ Concerto with Toscanini’s second assistant. And Toscanini, who was in the hall, after hearing me play, came up to congratulate me for my great courage. On my own initiative, I had chosen this Mozart concerto.

The reaction of the American audience was, I must say, excellent. I think, just for that, hearing a Mozart concerto rested them, in the long run, from the fatigue of great virtuosity !

You know, I believe it was thought that Mozart was too easy to play, that it didn’t let you show off your technique, that it didn’t highlight sonority…

What was funny, was that Toscanini engaged me to play with him and perhaps he expected me to ask him to play a Mozart concerto, but I asked him to play the Brahms Second…

His reaction was excellent, but he had to learn it to accompany me! He could have told me : ‘Listen, that’s a work I don’t conduct’. But at that time, I was younger than I am now and I said to him : ‘I would like, Great Maestro, to play a Brahms with you’, and he did it straightaway. That’s what I find admirable in a master like Toscanini.

Robert Casadesus and Mozart

Robert Casadesus interviewed by Myriam Soumagnac on his admiration for Mozart.

My favorite composers, I have one – I have one above all, and that’s Mozart. Naturally, I don’t want to say that the others do not exist. Because I love Scarlatti, I love Bach, I love Beethoven, I love Schubert, why not. Some pieces that are not by my favorite musician make me cry, but I must say that, for me, Mozart was the most prodigious of musicians because he tried everything-and felicitously. He wrote marvelous operas, string quartets, piano concertos – everything, in fact : chamber music, religious music…

So I can clearly state that my favorite composer is Mozart.

Saint-Saëns and Ravel

Radio Suisse Romande interviews about Saint-Saëns, particularly after the performance of his 4th Concerto by Robert Casadesus.

I think that Saint-Saëns, in certain parts of his oeuvre, has harmonies that had a considerable influence on Ravel. Ravel was a great admirer of Saint-Saëns, and I find we are a bit nasty with Saint-Saëns, because if you take, for example, his Second Symphony (that is never played anymore), it is thoroughly Mendelssohnian! If you attack Saint-Saëns, you must attack Mendelssohn, and I find that both those musicians, Mendelssohn more than Saint-Saëns, are, in my opinion, marvelous in certain works.

Now, to speak to you about Saint-Saëns nastily, I would have to say that I can’t stand Samson et Delilah. And Samson et Delilah had a dazzling career round the world, and even today!

Concerning Ravel’s admiration for Saint-Saëns, Robert Casadesus tells us :

At the time I was having conversations with Ravel, we were doing concert tours together, I was playing his music, and we had wonderful conversations about music. At that time, I took Ravel for an Old Gentleman, when he said that Saint-Saëns was a composer whom one should copy, taking inspiration from his harmonies and his novelties. At that time, I thought Ravel was talking drivel. Well, now it’s me who’s talking drivel! Saint-Saëns has come up in my esteem – great esteem.

Robert Casadesus and Saint-Saëns

– What led Robert Casadesus to play Saint-Saëns ?

Now that’s another story. I had never played Saint-Saëns up until the day that Toscanini, with whom I had played in New York, asked me to take part in a Saint-Saëns Festival-not a festival devoted completely to the music of Saint-Saëns, but a festival for erecting a statue of Saint-Saëns somewhere. And the maestro was coming from Milan to Paris to give the concert for free. I initially refused and then said to myself: ‘Even so, when a man like Toscanini asks you to play a concerto, even though you don’t like that concerto, you should still learn to play it!’ And I played it. I was punished a bit afterwards because at the time I could no longer get away from the Saint-Saëns concerto. I was tired of it, yet all the concert societies round the world asked me for it! This year it is Monsieur Ansermet who has asked me for it. When I gave him my repertoire, Monsieur Ansermet said to me: ‘Well, I’d like the Saint-Saëns’.

Robert Casadesus was responsible for the rediscovery of Saint-Saëns in Lucerne and Geneva.

It is necessary to play him like the classic he was. If you put in any mannerism, it becomes awful music, but there’s a lot of music like that. Poor Chopin – God knows he’s betrayed ! You understand: it’s necessary to respect the text that is marked.

Robert Casadesus and Zino Francescatti

– Franscescatti and you began duos during the War. Later on, a manager asked you to take this new-born association before the public.

That’s quite right. I can tell you we played the 17 Mozart sonatas, the ten Beethovens, the three Brahms and all the French sonatas during the summers I was teaching at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau-which during the War was transported to America, and which I brought back to Fontainebleau after the War, in 1946.
I was a professor at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau beginning in 1921.

Robert Casadesus and Ernest Ansermet

It was exactly 30 years ago that I gave my first concert in Geneva, but I had previously given a recital at the hall of the Conservatory, which had been given me by the Pleyel firm, as well as in Lausanne. And, after that recital, I was immediately engaged by my old friend, Monsieur Ansermet, for the next subscription concert of the following year, in 1955. and I played the ‘Coronation’ Concerto.

I began my international career in Geneva and I must say that I was very proud, very grateful.

What is rather interesting is that I had played in 1917 in the Ballets Russes in Paris, under Monsieur Ansermet’s direction, playing the piano part in Petrushka. Monsieur Ansermet had noticed me and told me: ‘Ha! If you work hard, one day you’ll come play with me in Geneva’. This is my 25th concert in Geneva.

In 1927, I played ‘La Montagnarde’ (d’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air) with Monsieur Ansermet-it was the first time I played ‘La Montagnarde’.

Robert Casadesus and Beethoven

– Can one stick to Beethoven’s markings, which are quite precise, in the first editions of his works ?

Absolutely! I find one must respect the first editions, and you must know that, for years, revisers marked the Beethoven sonatas, putting in dynamics, metronome changes, all that…

Well, I reckon that, in 1957, we must return to the source, we must respect Beethoven’s dynamics. With the exception, for the pedals, you find pedals in the sonatas, especially in the sonatas and Third Concerto. Pedals that are now impossible, because with the progress of the piano, modern pianos, if you respect Beethoven’s pedals, they’re horrible. In the ‘Appassionata’ in the last movement of the first piece, you can’t respect them.

But aside from that, the dynamics, the pianos, the fortes, you know that Beethoven marked his music marvelously. His dynamics, his crescendi, his pianissimi – all that is marvelously done, even in the late sonatas. If you look at the manuscripts of the late sonatas, it’s extremely muddled, but you find everything in the Opus 111 or 109 Sonatas, absolutely everything; you have to respect what Beethoven wrote.

Robert Casadesus is of the opinion that Beethoven’s piano writing is imagined for the orchestra, in terms of dynamics.

In certain Beethoven sonatas, especially the late ones, they are rather badly written for the piano. You have the left hand way down at the end of the piano, the right hand at the opposite end, as in the opening bars of the Opus 111 Sonata. At that moment, we have the impression of an orchestral reduction.

Certain sonatas sound wrong, despite the resources of the modern instrument. That requires enormous technique and an art of the pedal.

I believe that with Beethoven you find the authentic trace of tradition. I found it in Risler, who is the French side, if you wish, and it’s exactly the same in Backhaus, who is the German side.

Diémer was also the bearer of a certain tradition: he had worked with Liszt. It’s very interesting because you know that Liszt ranked the Beethoven sonatas by difficulty. He had them published- I believe you can still find them, but I couldn’t tell you which publisher. But he published them in order of difficulty. Naturally, he placed the Opus 106 as being the most difficult.