Obituary: Gaby Casadesus

Tim Bullamore
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:30
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THOSE PIANISTS who shone in the early decades of the 20th century are diminishing rapidly in number. With the death of Gaby Casadesus another light from the heady musical world of Paris in the 1920s is extinguished.

Married at the age of 20 into one of the most prominent French musical dynasties, Gabrielle L'Hote, as she was born, had already won first prize in her year at the Paris Conservatoire aged just 16. She had entered when only 12 years old, having previously studied with her mother, and was taught by Marguerite Long and Louis Diemer. Other great names who coached her included Gabriel Faure, Florent Schmitt and Maurice Ravel, with whom she and her husband were close friends until Ravel's death in 1937.

Her performances of these and other French and European composers established her as an artist with something individual to say. And, besides her indisputable mastery of interpretation, she knew and worked with many of the great names of the century.

Hearing Artur Rubinstein play Albeniz's Navarra during the 1920s she was "astonished", she said, "to notice that he did not play all the notes. As I was working on it at the time, I knew it well, and I was really surprised that a pianist of his magnitude could have this sort of gap."

Of a visit to Salzburg in 1935, she remembered giving a concert at the Mozarteum with Bruno Walter after which she and Robert were invited to lunch by Toscanini with his wife and his daughter who had just married Vladimir Horowitz: "Horowitz seemed anxious to change his programmes. He felt he should play more serious works . . . and play fewer flamboyant pieces."

Recalling the French composer Gabriel Faure during an interview in 1986, she said: "He was deaf, like Beethoven, and this is one of the reasons his last works are hard to understand on first hearing - he wrote them out of his head. But, also like Beethoven, the music is very beautiful if you give it some time."

The Casadesus family, descended from Luis Casadesus (1850-1919), continues to play a prominent role in French musical life. Of Luis's numerous children, seven became professional musicians. Robert Marcel Casadesus, whom Gaby married in 1921, became one of the great pianists of the 20th century.

In her youth Gaby Casadesus became known as an elegant interpreter of Mozart's music, respected for her assurance and sensitivity. In 1923 she was awarded the Prix Pages, France's highest distinction for women pianists.

Robert gave the inaugural concert at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1927 and around the same time the couple began appearing as a four-hand, two-piano duo in concerts across Europe. Both on and off the platform they achieved renown as a formidable partnership.

In 1934, at Varsovie, Robert and Gaby gave the first performance, of Robert's Concerto for two pianos and the following year they performed Mozart's Concerto for two pianos under Bruno Walter. Robert also wrote Six pieces (1938) for two pianists, for performance with his wife. Bach's Double Piano Concerto became something of a calling card for the couple. Their 1967 recording with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and Edmond de Stoutz on Sony was highly acclaimed and has recently been re-mastered by the label on CD. Other joint recordings - many of which have now reappeared - include the complete piano music of Ravel, in which Gaby joins Robert for the two piano works.

In 1940 the couple settled in New York, giving countless duo recitals, while Robert often appeared in concert with the violinist Zino Francescatti. They returned to Europe in 1946, where they became associated with the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau.

The two pianists developed a routine for never getting in each other's way, as Gaby once explained: "We had sound-insulated rooms so that Robert might practise in the study (where we had two pianos). I would practise in the living room. Robert always played his programmes for me before presenting them to an audience, especially if he was performing new works."

Although Robert was a regular visitor to Britain, Gaby gave relatively few performances here either alone or with her husband. Of their November 1952 duo recital at the Wigmore Hall, The Times opined merely that it had been "an interesting way to spend a wet afternoon".

In the post-war years Casadesus developed a reputation as a teacher. Her pedagogical publications included Ma Technique Quotidienne, a daily technique book. She also produced a new edition for Schirmer of Ravel's piano work Gaspard de la Nuit complete with fingering and pedalling (1964) and in 1989, with Jacqueline Muller, wrote an entertaining memoir entitled Mes Noces Musicales ("My Musical Marriage").

In 1986 she came out of retirement for a concert at the Merkin Concert Hall in New York to perform Faure's Dolly Suite for piano, four hands, with Grant Johannesen.

After a long and distinguished career, Robert Casadesus died in 1972, just months after their oldest son Jean, also a pianist, had been killed in a motor accident.

Gabrielle L'Hote, pianist: born Marseilles, France 9 August 1901; married 1921 Robert Casadesus (died 1972; one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Paris 12 November 1999.

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