Capuçon and Buniatishvili: An Outstanding Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Bartók, and Beethoven: Renaud Capuçon (violin), Khatia Buniatishvili (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 14.1.2014 (MB)

Brahms – Violin Sonata no.2 in A major, op.100
Bartók – Violin Sonata no.2
Beethoven – Violin Sonata no.5 in F major, op.24, ‘Spring’

This proved to be an outstanding recital. The first movement of Brahms’s A major sonata was perhaps a little more tentative than the rest, Renaud Capuçon taking a little while to get into full flow, but that is really the only cavil that I can muster. Capuçon’s partner, Khatia Buniatishvili, made her presence felt straight away, spreading some of the piano chords in a way that took one back to what, despite the cliché, one can hardly but think of as a golden age of pianism. The chastity of the opening to the first movement suggested assemblage of building blocks; it was an intriguing alternative to being plunged immediately into the thick of it. If the basic tempo were a little slower, more reflective, than one often hears, that served to remind us that Brahms’s marking is not merely Allegro but Allegro amabile; I found it very convincing, and there was in any case a great deal of flexibility, not for its own sake, but with sound musical justification. Real passion was to be heard, but the hushed moments were just as telling. Once Capuçon was fully in his stride, his tone and vibrato, perfectly allied to bowing, could not have been better judged. Moreover, both players ensured that we were fully aware of the extraordinary concision of this first movement. In the second movement, Capuçon’s portamenti – never excessive, yet certainly present – and general suavity likewise put me in mind of an earlier generation of violinists: we might almost have been listening to Thibaud and Cortot. Again, the Andante tranquillo probably took a little more time than often, but in context, the tempo seemed just ‘right’. The kinship of Brahms’s piano writing with his late piano pieces sounded closer than ever, whilst the Vivace sections emerged as true trios, teeming with life yet never rushed. Brahms’s score breathed, beguiled, and most importantly, intrigued. One sensed in each phrase a wealth of possibilities which, after the event, but only after the event, could only ever have been resolved in one way: Hegel’s owl of Minerva only spreading its wings at dusk. The ghostliness of the Vivace reprise hinted at the spirit of Beethoven (the Fifth Symphony?); so did the final bloom. And there was real danger in the performance: at no point did it sound over-rehearsed, the players clearly reacting to each other. The final movement opened as if a continuation of what had gone before rather than a new beginning, yet a heightened sense of Romantic fantasy brought novelty enough. Again, the player’s admirable metrical flexibility, allied to clear motivic understanding, proved a well-nigh ideal combination. I should love to hear them in Schoenberg and Webern.

A myriad of colours announced themselves in the opening bars of Bartók’s second sonata, those bars offering a wealth of possibilities to be taken up in what followed: harmonically, rhythmically, melodically as well, indeed in terms of every parameter. A guiding spirit quite properly seemed to be the dialectic between freedom and determinism, heightened by a febrile tension in performance such as one only rarely hears. In context, one heard Bartók’s music as more post-Brahmsian than one might otherwise do. Line and voicing evoked Bartok’s concerto writing for both instruments; there was quiet as well as virtuosic integrity here. Much the same might be said of the second movement. An especially admirable quality was the way in which rhythm emerged not, as too often seems to be the case in such music, as something ‘in itself’, but musically inextricable from the other characteristics of the musical material and its expression. The shifting between moods, those crucial moments of transition, showed apparently irreconcilable material to be anything but. Last but not least, the sheer musical charisma of Capuçon and Buniatshvili had me mesmerised from beginning to end.

Beethoven’s Spring Sonata sounded from the outset – and again, the cliché will have to be forgiven, or at least endured – newly-minted. Capuçon and Buniatshvili lived and expressed the formal dynamism that too often is lacking in modern Beethoven performances, and without detriment to expressive detail. This was an urgency founded in harmony and motivic development, not in the false friend of the metronome. The moment of the exposition’s repeat thus announced itself as veritably heart-breaking: a genuine yet forlorn attempt to return to a Mozartian paradise that was now unattainable. By contrast, the initiation of the development section somehow registered as a true surprise, even though one knew it was coming, Haydn’s influence continuing to run deep. Capuçon’s vigorous annunciation of this section served to propel the rest of the movement; it was really quite something to hear Beethoven apparently reborn like this. And then, the recapitulation, which simply took one’s breath away: it might almost have been Schubert. That was not all, however, for the intensity of Beethoven’s thematic working had us feeling that this was almost a second development, no mere ‘return’. Such, moreover, was the palpable, at times frankly erotic, tension that this oft-misunderstood sonata might have been an offshoot of Don Giovanni. The slow movement gloried in a sense of communion with Nature that undoubtedly looked forward to the Pastoral Symphony. That communion was attained not least through the players’ unerring sense of melos, which took in both post-Mozartian profusion and Haydn’s rigorous economy of means, whilst remaining true to Beethoven’s soul itself. The scherzo, immediately attacked, sounded with all that febrile intensity experienced in the Bartók sonata; it proved as concise and as expressive as anything in Webern. Beethoven’s finale was given a properly loving performance that yet never indulged. Accents were played with, to just the right extent. It teemed with life, driven by harmony rather than the externally-applied shock-tactics of the ‘authentic’ brigade. And crucially, it possessed the weight of a finale. It was difficult not to think that a great Beethovenian such as Daniel Barenboim, even Furtwängler, would have approved.

Mark Berry