Friday, 7 November 2014

Beethoven violin sonatas (1): Capuçon/Braley, 6 November 2014

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Violin Sonata no.1 in D major, op.12 no.1
Violin Sonata no.2 in A major, op.12 no.2
Violin Sonata no.3 in E-flat major, op.12 no.3
Violin Sonata no.4 in A minor, op.23

Renaud Capuçon (violin)
Frank Braley (piano)

Three concerts over four days: Renaud Capuçon and Frank Braley will perform the ten Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin. Barring an act of God, I shall be attending them all. They have opted for a strictly chronological presentation; there are arguments either way, though I admit that I tend to veer towards a more imaginative approach to programming, such as Daniel Barenboim offered when, not so long ago, he performed all the thirty-two piano sonatas next door at the Royal Festival Hall. There are, though, as I said arguments either way; here Beethoven’s development will be more clearly the theme.

The opening D major arpeggios of the first sonata sounded bright, suggesting an adventure to come, not that there is anything especially jejune to this work. A poised second subject promised equally good things. For the only time this evening, Capuçon’s intonation left something to be desired, though by the time the exposition was repeated such (relatively minor) problems had long since been banished. That repeat also benefited from a more dynamic approach to form. A little squareness arguably goes with Beethoven’s territory at this stage, but there are degrees when it comes to performance. There was a nice sense of surprise to the opening of the development, recapturing that initial sense of wonder. A spring in Braley’s step, or rather under his hands, helped its progress. The recapitulation was properly intensified, though here and indeed throughout, I missed a true sense of interaction between the two artists – perhaps surprisingly so, given how often they have collaborated. Braley seemed too much the ‘accompanist’ in that movement, but certainly did in the next. However, now Capuçon’s golden-age tone production came into its own, likewise his telling phrasing. Beethoven’s ornamental, but not merely ornamental, variation form flowered beautifully. Minor-key turbulence registered without the performers trying to make it into something that it is not, or cannot be. Catchiness to the rondo theme was well captured, especially by Capuçon. By his side, Braley sounded a little plodding; surely he might have made more of Beethoven’s modulations. Still, there was considerably joy to be had in hearing the fire in the violinist’s performance, quite devoid of attention-seeking ‘devices’.

The A major sonata opened in spirited fashion, with exquisite variation – meaningfully so – with respect to articulation. Grace and concision marked out its character, not least in contrast to the first movement of its predecessor. And Capuçon offered vibrato to die for! It was he, moreover, who really seemed to relish the expansion of Beethoven’s tonal plan, especially during the development section, though Braley handled well the lead-in to the recapitulation. What a pity, then, that some members of the audience saw fit to applaud at the movement’s close! Perhaps it was a greater pity, though, that Braley’s playing in the slow movement was so prosaic, generally struggling to maintain a longer line and to provide formal impetus. Capuçon could ‘fill in’ many of the ‘gaps’, as it were, but that is not really the point. Beethoven’s marking notwithstanding, I felt – perhaps wrongly – that the finale would have benefited from a little more bite. Capuçon again proved the more dramatic artist.

One realised pretty much immediately the grander scale of Beethoven’s ambition and achievement in the third sonata. Idiosyncrasies – where would Beethoven be without them? – were conveyed without exaggeration. I still wished for more of a ‘voice’ from the pianist, but he certainly seemed more responsive to his partner. Again, we had to suffer applause at the end of the first movement – this time from a single person, who was clearly acting so as to attract attention, seemingly willing the disapproval that inevitably came. The next movement offered playing ardent and intimate by turns from Capuçon; if only Braley had proved so flexible. There was, however, something closer to an equal partnership in the finale, even though Capuçon still seemed willing to take greater risks and better able to communicate the melos of the work. His was splendidly variegated playing, with considerable fire.

Beethoven’s tragic daemon announced itself properly in the A minor sonata. It seemed also to aid a process of ‘opening up’ on Braley’s part; this was to my mind unquestionably his best performance. Concision, motivic and in more broadly formal terms, registered strongly from both players. There was vehemence, which never so much threatened to tip into vulgar melodrama; this, quite rightly, remained refined playing. Counterpoint was stylishly handled in the second movement, which as a whole offered telling contrast between its predecessor and successor. That is not to say it was simply an oasis; experimental particularities told too, albeit well integrated into the greater picture. The same might be said of the finale, which moved highly convincingly towards closure – both of the work and of the recital. There was true virtuosic fire to be heard from Capuçon, as if offering a trailer for the Kreutzer. That, however, will have to wait until Sunday.