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Brian Taylor is a musician and writer. He resides in New York City.

REVIEW: Capuçon and Wang Match Wit for Wit

REVIEW: Capuçon and Wang Match Wit for Wit

APRIL 10, 2019

BY BRIAN TAYLOR

Gautier Capuçon, one of today's leading men of the cello, possesses limitless technique and a profound command of musical expression. Paired with Yuja Wang, a dazzler at the piano seemingly capable of playing anything, there are more enough chops to go around. Capuçon's poised, composed stage presence, and sturdy, muscular sound are a grounding force upon the sometimes unpredictable Wang. Where her idiosyncratic choices at the piano might dare to leave some collaborators treading in her wake, Capuçon steps in with confident gestures, spinning gold from her wont to blur accompaniment textures and magnetize inner melodies.

Wang began the first movement of César Franck's 1886 Violin Sonata in A Major (a piece frequently played on the cello) with a misty, gauzy dreaminess. When the cello enters, Capuçon answers more matter-of-factly. We are not at sea for long, however. The second movement, a stormy Allegro, is electric, both players riding the rollercoaster in tandem. Franck's evocative harmonies, whimsical treatment of melodic fragments, syncopated rhythms, and maybe even some "blue notes" seem to anticipate twentieth century developments. The duo's driving tempo in the Allegro emphasizes those jazzy, fin de siècle, elements.

Photos by Fadi Kheir.

Photos by Fadi Kheir.

The mysterious slow movement begins as a recitative, each player taking turns contemplating a mixture of melodic fragments old and new. Capuçon delivers his cadenza-like material with considered pacing and shape, as a great actor would deliver a Shakespeare monologue. The pair’s musical partnership truly gels in the glorious second half of this movement, Wang's legatissimo flowing harp-like arpeggios buttressing Capuçon's soul-baring dramatico phrases.

The finale sweeps away the cobwebs of the previous three movements, beginning with a Brahms-like, noble melody played with exceeding sweetness by Wang. In close dialogue with the cello, the two flirt with each other, matching wit for wit. The pair relish subito pianissimos -- both explore their instruments' wide color palettes. As the movement builds to its rousing conclusion, Franck indicates grandioso, and Capuçon and Wang deceptively make it look easier as it goes along. Wang's enviable octave technique strains credulity. 

Photos by Fadi Kheir.

Photos by Fadi Kheir.

The evening's theatrical flourishes continued with Frédéric Chopin's Introduction and Polonaise brilliante in C Major, Op. 3. The piano's opening riffs are fireworks in Wang's fingers. Capuçon soars, bringing a just-right balance of stoicism and emotion, and nimble rhythmic reflexes. In the Polish dance Polonaise portion, I wondered where the danceable rhythm was. But, it's a dazzling showpiece for these virtuosic talents.

The program's second half, Sergei Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19, was stunning; Capuçon communicates a deep relationship with the work, drawing out the most persuasive playing I've yet heard from Yuja Wang. The first movement was cohesive and robust. The second movement, a devilish Scherzo, began with snapping rhythms and thrilling suspense. The movement veers into a contrasting lyrical section, and here, this duo is at their most heavenly. Capuçon has something to say, and listens actively, too.

Rachmaninoff begins the slow movement in the piano alone, along with a pianistic problem: the texture is dense and the combination of melody and accompaniment strains the shape of the hand. It's awkward. Wang solves this by rendering the accompaniment a murky smear of sound, her hands decidedly not together, projecting the melody like Ethel Merman. The effect is analogous to a jellyfish (the bulbous melody) swimming through the ocean trailed by its oozing tentacles (the sixteenth-note filigree), or perhaps, a comet and its tail. Again, once Capuçon takes the reins, we feel the ground beneath us settle, and the movement builds to a ravishing payoff. The finale, a demanding Rondo, was exhilarating. Wang's talent for distilling a page full of notes to its essentials, and Capuçon’s patient, confident sense of line, and luxurious, mahogany timbre, serve to clarify the dense work, and maximize momentum. Again, they make the most of dynamic contrasts, the softs especially vivid.

The audience erupts, and for encores, is treated to an ethereal, transcendent rendition of The Swan, the never-ending melody set to a rippling-water accompaniment of Camille Saint-Saëns, followed by a riveting account of Astor Piazolla’s (long for an encore) Le Grand Tango for Cello and Piano.

***

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