Renaud Capuçon and Kit Armstrong: An Ideal Partnership in Mozart

AustriaAustria Salzburg Mozartwoche (2) – Mozart: Renaud Capuçon (violin), Kit Armstrong (piano). Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg, 30.1.2016. (MB)

Violin Sonata no.20 in C major, KV 303/293c
Rondo in A minor, KV 511
Violin Sonata no.21 in E minor, KV 304/300c
Violin Sonata no.36 in F major, KV 547
Violin Sonata no.26 in B-flat major, KV 378/317d

This was the second of two recitals from Renaud Capuçon and Kit Armstrong this year; four more, I think, are to follow in 2017. Menahem Pressler had been scheduled to partner Capuçon; no one could reasonably have been disappointed by his replacement. One of Capuçon’s great strengths as a violinist, it seems to me, is his ability to adapt his performance according to his partners; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. That is not to say that he is simply a chameleon, far from it, but he is a chamber musician (even when playing with an orchestra) who listens and responds as well as leads. The partnership with Armstrong – whose Mozart playing seemed to me very much in the line of Alfred Brendel, with whom he has studied – sounded very much as a meeting of equals. The preposterous claim, often trotted out, that Mozart’s violin sonatas do not work on modern instruments, that there is somehow a problem with the balance, was less defeated than forestalled. The idea would never have occurred to anyone who was not in thrall to ideology; sadly, that means we shall hear it time and time again, from people who cannot rely on their performances to make the point.

A cultivated tone was heard from the outset in the C major Sonata, KV 303/293c. The first movement’s Adagio sections were properly leisurely, their Molto allegro counterparts brilliant, yet never losing that aristocratic cultivation. Balance was ideal. The harmonic surprises of the Adagio music spoke without underlining. In the ensuing Tempo di Meneuetto, quicksilver transformations were integrated into the longer line, whilst remaining well characterised. A case in point would be those extraordinary piano left-hand eruptions, which turn out instead to be an exercise in skittishness, over almost as soon as they have begun. In both movements, Mozart’s formal experimentation was striking.

Armstrong then played the great A minor Rondo, again striking a fine balance between the need individually to voice every note and the demands of the phrase as a whole. That is not to say that longer-term structure was lacking, but it seemed to emerge from the material, rather than being imposed upon it. The performance’s Classicism, in Brendel’s line, did not preclude darker Romanticism, but this was not an overtly emotional reading. Indeed, intimacy was its hallmark.

The E minor Sonata, KV 304/300c opened with almost Schubertian sadness, then taking quite a different path: elegant yet deeply felt. Neither musician showed any need to shout about the emotional content; that did not mean that it was not present. Capuçon’s singing tone sounded well-nigh perfect to me. The second movement, again a Tempo di Menuetto, could hardly be more different from that in the C major Sonata. The players took it more slowly than often one hears, very much to its benefit, permitting pathos in melody and harmony alike to tell. This is a movement to take one’s breath away – and it did; tragic without underlining its tragedy.

The first movement of the ‘Sonata for beginners’ charmed without trying to be something it was not. Beautifully played, it sang and it smiled. Brilliant display and un-showy musicality characterised the second movement. There was likewise a winning simplicity to the finale, although here I felt the piano playing at times a little under-characterised, even bland, perhaps most surprisingly in the minor-mode variation. I had no such qualms, however, with respect to the violin performance.

The B-flat Sonata was very much in the line of the first-half performances. Phrasing was of such a ‘natural’ quality that it doubtless belied a great deal of thought and effort. Something a little more ‘Romantic’ would not necessarily have gone amiss in the second movement from the piano, the notes occasionally appearing more important than their connections; that should not, however, be exaggerated. The complexity of Mozart’s writing shone through in any case. The Rondeau was more ebullient; given the nature of the movement, how could it not be? But it was more than that; the piano part sounded relished, even loved. Once again, we seemed to hear an ideal partnership. Capuçon’s elegance seemed once again to have been liberated.

Mark Berry

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