Outstanding Debussy from Gautier Capuçon and Frank Braley

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Martinů, Fauré, Beethoven, Debussy, Britten: Gautier Capuçon (cello), Frank Braley (piano), Kings Place, London, 15.3.2017. (RB)

Martinů – Variations on a Slovak Theme
Fauré Élégie Op.24; Three Songs Op.7/1. Après un rêve
Beethoven – Cello Sonata No. 1 in F Op.5 No.1
Debussy – Cello Sonata in D minor
Britten – Cello Sonata in C Op.65

Gautier Capuçon and Frank Braley are regular chamber music partners and they have issued a number of critically acclaimed recordings together.  They were very relaxed on stage and clearly had an excellent rapport with the audience.  In the second half of this recital they paid homage to the extraordinary creative partnership forged between Rostropovich and Britten.  They interposed short works by Fauré between the two main works in both halves of the recital.

They opened with Martinů’s Variations on a Slovak Theme which was composed in the year of the composer’s death.  I found this a very uneven performance and it was the least successful of the works on the programme.  I loved the rich burnished sound which Capuçon summoned from his cello which filled the hall.  The syncopations, double stopping and rapid fire passage-work were all dispatched with aristocratic brio.  However, Braley did not really have a feel for Martinů’s distinctive idiomatic style and he seemed overwhelmed by Capuçon in the first three variations.  Things improved in the scherzo fourth variation where there was better interplay and balance between the two performers while Capuçon gave a very exhilarating and virtuosic performance of the final variation.

Fauré’s Élégie was written in 1880 and it was originally intended as part of a cello sonata.  Fauré orchestrated the work later and Pablo Casals premiered the orchestral version.  Capuçon allowed the sombre opening melody to sing out through the hall and his control of dynamics was extremely impressive.  Braley produced some lovely dolce playing in the central section while Capuçon brought an unbridled passion to the final section.  I loved the dark cavernous sounds Capuçon created in the lower reaches of the instrument in the final few bars.  In the second half the duo performed Casals’ transcription of Fauré’s immortal Après un rêve.  The balance of sound was not quite right at the beginning but they recovered well and Capuçon brought a gorgeous tonal sheen and a burning sensuality to Fauré’s famous melody.

The first half of the recital concluded with the first of Beethoven’s Op.5 cello sonatas which the composer wrote in 1796 when he was in Prussia.  The work is dedicated to the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, who was a keen amateur cellist.  Capuçon and Braley produced nicely shaped phrases in the Adagio introduction and they brought enormous charm and a cultivated refinement to the music.  The Allegro was vibrant and uplifting and there was engaging interplay between the performers and a strong sense of the structural integrity of the music.  Occasionally, Braley’s handling of the rapid passage-work could have been a little cleaner and but this is a minor point.  The build up in the final section was superb and the coda had an unfettered exuberance which succeeded in coaxing a spontaneous round of applause from the audience.  The triplets of the finale tripped along in a delightful way and there was a wonderful rapport between the performers.  There was an infectious enthusiasm in the music making as the music coursed to its triumphant conclusion.

The second half opened with Debussy’s Cello Sonata which was a centrepiece of Britten and Rostropovich’s iconic 1961 recording for Decca.  I last saw Capuçon and Braley perform the work in the Wigmore Hall and their performance on that occasion bowled me over (review).  I am pleased to report that they continue to excel in this work and theirs must now rank as one of the great performances of the work.  Braley brought a powerful stately quality to the opening and the baroque ornamentation was stylishly executed.  Both performers responded to Debussy’s detailed instructions with an imaginative range of textures and sonorities and vivid tone painting.  The second movement is infused with the spirit of the Commedia dell’arte and Debussy was at one point thinking of adding the title Pierrot fâché avec la lune (Pierrot vexed with the moon).  This movement was brilliantly characterised by Capuçon who brought a playful quality to the pizzicato cello line and a perfectly judged flexibility to the tempo.  We moved without a break into the dancing finale which had a winsome Gallic charm.  The performers brought a sunny optimism to Debussy’s melodies and shifting textures and the piece ended on a note of upbeat affirmation.

The final work on the programme was the Cello Sonata Britten wrote for Rostropovich following his first meeting with the great cellist.  I heard Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan perform this work in the Wigmore Hall last week (review) so it was interesting to compare the two performances.  Capuçon and Braley adopted a slightly slower tempo than Weilerstein and Barnatan in the opening Dialogo where tiny phrases are passed between the performers.  The exchanges were tightly and skilfully coordinated but there is an elusive quality to Britten’s writing that was somehow missing from this performance.  The performers brought a coy humour to the exchanges at the start of the scherzo second movement and the pizzicato cello line was deftly handled.  Capuçon brought a rapt intensity to the opening section of the Elegia and as the movement progressed there was some very dramatic playing from both performers.  Britten was clearly influenced by Shostakovich and Prokofiev in the Marcia fourth movement.  I liked the spikiness and evocation of menace in this performance but wondered if they could have made a little more of Britten’s parade of grotesque effects.  The Moto Perpetuo finale was taken at full throttle by Capuçon and Braley and there was a visceral sense of excitement to this performance before climactic double octaves brought the work to a conclusion.  So how did this performance shape up against that of Weilerstein and Barnatan?  Both performances were very good but on this occasion I had an overall preference for Weilerstein and Barnatan although I preferred Capuçon and Braley in the Elegia.

This recital offered very fine playing from Capuçon and Braley particularly in the Debussy, Beethoven and Fauré.

Robert Beattie

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