Recording of September 2003: Franck & Rachmaninoff Sonatas

FRANCK: Violin Sonata in A
RACHMANINOFF: Cello Sonata in g

Renaud Capuçon, violin; Gautier Capuçon, cello; Alexandre Gurning, Lilya Zilberstein, piano
EMI Classics 5 57505 2 (CD). 2003. Carlo Piccardi, prod.; Ulrich Ruscher, eng. DDD. TT: 65:33
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Bold in sound and sensibility, this live-wire recording matches two Romantic chamber works related in spirit in performances by two young soloists related by blood. In their early 20s, the frères Capuçon are a pair of highly touted string players; most notably, the Frenchmen are championed by Martha Argerich, arguably today's most compelling pianist as well as a longtime supporter of developing talent. Prime participants in last summer's Martha Argerich Project at the Lugano Festival in Switzerland, violinist Renaud Capuçon and cellist Gautier Capuçon are showcased here on the third recording issued by EMI from the event; the elder Renaud performs Franck's Violin Sonata in league with Belgian pianist Alexandre Gurning, while Gautier aligns with the Russian Lilya Zilberstein for the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata.

This disc hit the racks at the same time as a Hyperion album by cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Stephen Hough that features the Rachmaninoff sonata along with the increasingly popular cello version of the Franck. Consisting of a single night's live performances, the Capuçons' set isn't a deeply pondered, meticulously prepared studio undertaking like the Isserlis-Hough, in which the interpretation (every bar explored for maximum expression), annotation (written with witty erudition by Isserlis), and recording (in the finest Hyperion tradition) all contribute to a statement. What the Capuçons' recording is, however, is a vividly captured document of two exciting, excited young soloists pulling off the trick of fully animating notes on a page, which is what the best classical music-making achieves.

The Violin Sonata in A by César Franck (1822-1890) stands not only as a pinnacle of the violin repertoire but also as one of the most absorbing sonatas of any stripe. Enormously vital, the sonata belies the composer's age—63—when he composed the piece as a wedding present for star Belgian violinist Eugéne Ysaÿe.

An example of Franck's brand of Wagner-derived cyclic form, with its passionate themes appearing and reappearing in manifold guise, the sonata also reflects the composer's background as an organist in its rich harmonies and counterpoint. Celebrated studio readings of the piece by Arthur Grumiaux, Kyung-Wha Chung, and Itzhak Perlman have been joined by live accounts from Anne-Sophie Mutter (her 1996 Berlin recital with Lambert Orkis for Deutsche Grammophon) and Perlman again (with Argerich, on a 1999 Saratoga recording on EMI). With his burning virtuosity tempered by a cool head, Renaud Capuçon more than holds his own in the live stakes.

The French violinist delivers a charged yet thoughtful performance of the Franck, one that serves as the attractive middle alternative to Mutter's deliberate underlining and Perlman's headlong, improvisatory rush (the veteran seemingly lit from behind by Argerich's fire). Like Mutter, Capuçon is alert to the poetry in the opening movement's song without words, yet he never gilds the lily, as she can; and despite his rhythmic spring, he never gets ahead of himself, as Perlman occasionally does. Compared, perhaps unfairly, with Argerich, Gurning can't match her incisive articulation in the most fevered moments of the second-movement Allegro, although he is afforded a more pleasingly resonant piano sound (not to mention a more central position in the audio picture). Finally, those eyeing the recent recordings by Isserlis, Yo-Yo Ma, and Mischa Maisky of the sonata's alternate cello arrangement would do to sample this disc first—a performance like Capuçon's proves that the violin version holds more thrills.

Sharing the dramatic, soul-baring atmosphere of the Franck, the Cello Sonata in g of 1901 by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) also has a finale in which darker emotions give way to light. Yet this work is ultimately governed by the composer's patented melancholy lyricism, even in a direct, extravert reading such as that of Gautier Capuçon, who obviously means to project far beyond the lip of the stage; although less subtly detailed than Isserlis, he is more immediately involving. The major plus for the Capuçon is its dry-eyed quality, with the sentimentality of Rachmaninoff's more lachrymose melodies burned off and purified, like the emotion from a torched love letter. Predictably perhaps, Rachmaninoff positioned the piano prominently, and Zilberstein speaks the master's voice with idiomatic flair.

Again, the piano tone is warm and realistic, as are the recordings overall; the soloists are acutely present, but the acoustic seems giving, and the engineer has allowed for enough air around the instruments.

Other than enthusiastic applause at the end of each piece, these recordings contain virtually no "audience participation." But as with any live recording, especially those with a close perspective, this disc can't hide occasional foot-stampings, pulls of breath, and swishings of cloth, as well as the odd instrumental glitch. These are not excessive, though, and are hardly impediments to relishing performances of uncommon electricity.—Bradley Bambarger