The Perceptive Joy of Renaud Capuçon’s Playing in Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Renaud Capuçon (violin), Frank Braley (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 9.11.2014 (MB)

Violin Sonata no.8 in G major, op.30 no.3
Violin Sonata no.9 in A major, op.47, ‘Kreutzer’
Violin Sonata no.10 in G major, op.96


When writing on the first concert in this series, I tempted fate, or rather the Almighty, by saying that, barring an act of God I should be hearing all three. Transport for London sprang into action on 7 November, to prevent me from attending the second. However, I almost feel that I could have reviewed it anyway, so similar were my responses to the Thursday evening and Sunday afternoon performances. In the broadest terms, Renaud Capuçon’s playing remained a joy and a perceptive joy at that; Frank Braley’s generally anonymous contribution remained a mystery in Beethoven of all composers.

 A quicksilver opening promised good things for the G major sonata, op.30 no.3. Braley remained second fiddle, as it were, but he seemed less reticent, if still far too polite. Capuçon offered the sweetest of tone and, more importantly still, a true sense of what Wagner would have called the melos of the work. Motivic tension registered in the first movement’s exposition, especially second time round. The development was over in a flash, but accomplished its mission; the recapitulation was experienced at least as much as a second development, at least insofar as the violin part was concerned. The second movement flowed nicely, benefiting from beautiful – and meaningful – gradation in violin tone. If only either here or in the finale, Braley had matched Capuçon in expressive range and formal dynamism. From cheekiness to truly Beethovenian vehemence, it was all there – in the violin.

 The Kreutzer opened grandly, full of potentiality. Braley sounded stronger too, though again he soon retreated into the background. Despite his reticence, though, the first movement’s performance remained urgent. And how one marvelled at the technique, tone quality, and dead-centred intonation of the violinist – all in expressive service. Once again, then, Beethoven’s minor-mode daemon made its presence felt, with due obsessiveness and humanity. Braley was somewhat more assertive in the recapitulation – and what a difference that made, apparently even pushing Capuçon to run the extra thrilling mile. Much to my surprise, Braley often sounded heavy-handed in the slow movement. Light and shade were too often missing. I found much of it on the fast side too, missing the rapt quality that is surely necessary here. Whilst it progressed pleasantly, even enjoyably, sublimity was not on offer, at least not until the greater depth Capuçon discovered in the minore variation, perhaps suggestive of Schubert, and its successor. The finale sounded similar in character to that of the earlier G major sonata, though more boisterous – perhaps partly on account of the greater need for releases. There was no doubt that this was the composer of the Waldstein Sonata, the Fifth Piano Concerto, the Fifth Symphony. If only… well, you know the proviso by now.

 A different, decidedly ‘later’, if not quite ‘late’ voice was, quite rightly, to be heard in op.96. The first movement sounded apparently both simpler and more fragmentary; there was something undeniably elusive to the performance, which reminded me of Adorno’s thesis of Beethoven’s renunciation of symphonic mastery in his music of this period. This first movement revealed strange but not unvariegated placidity, or so it seemed. There was a touching dignity, vulnerability, and again strangeness to its successor. The performance captured well an introversion that could not help but attempt, with ambiguous success, to turn outward. In context, the scherzo burst forth as necessary contrast, though it would have done still more so, had the piano equalled the violin in character. It was difficult to avoid the sense of a ‘late’, bagatelle-like quality, with equally striking eighteenth-century reminiscence. The finale then offered an experience of terse, would-be ‘simplicity’. Perhaps it might at times have benefited from a more rarefied air, but relative straightforwardness had its own rewards.

 Mark Berry

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