A legend in his prime

15 October 2018

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘Gautier Capuçon plays Tchaikovsky’ ·
Perth Concert Hall, October 6 ·
Review by Tiffany Ha ·

Gautier Capuçon is a Classical Music Superstar. His biography begins with a description of himself as “a true 21st century ambassador for the cello”. It’s an endearingly humble opening, considering what follows is a dizzying list of all the major names he’s worked with in recent years – a list that seems to include the best living performers, composers and musical institutions of the last 30 years.

Seeing Capuçon on stage is like witnessing something miraculous – he’s simply that good. There are many high-level performers in the world who tick all the boxes, whose technical refinement, expression and flair are clear as day to audiences. But Capuçon’s methods are transparent; when you watch him, you’re so lost in the moment, in the sheer beauty of the sound, that you forget the whole thing is the result of many hours, years, decades of human effort. Watching Capuçon is like watching tennis legend Federer in his prime. They even have similar hair styles – wavy brown tresses, prone to falling across a furrowed brow in moments of intensity or candour.

The programming of this concert (one of WASO’s MACA Limited Classics Series) was a little unusual, with the soloist performing in the first half of the evening. After missing the first number – Sibelius’s orchestral prelude, The Tempest – due to traffic congestion from Oktoberfest celebrations in Langley Park, I was relieved to make it into my seat moments before Capuçon and conductor Ludovic Morlot stepped on stage.

Their first piece with WASO was Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme – a kind of Romantic era “throwback” to the Classical stylings of Mozart (whom the Russian composer revered). Capuçon looked completely at-home on stage – he was calm, and without bravado for his entire performance. His 1701 Matteo Goffriller cello had the most glorious sonority I’ve ever heard; the lower register was so rich and full it almost rivalled a double bass.

Capuçon’s bow control was absolutely extraordinary. The purity of his higher register, the seamlessness of his dynamic and articulatory control, the full resonance of his tone was awe-inspiring. During his cadenzas (solo passages, where the orchestra takes a break) the other musicians focused intently on Capuçon, their faces showing a mix of disbelief and confusion, as if they were all thinking, “How on earth…?”

Next up was an orchestral adaptation of the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet (Op. 11). This was an opportunity for us to enjoy Capuçon’s exquisite tone. He played the folk-inspired melodies with amazing restraint, using minimal vibrato and rubato (flexibility of tempo). He made it easy for conductor Morlot to follow him and to guide the orchestra in crafting a simple, soft accompaniment around the unassuming hymn-like melodies. I personally love it when world-class musicians play simpler works – they’re often the most moving performances. Sometimes, virtuosity and complexity can obscure a deeper, more human connection to the music. I have no doubt Capuçon could play the most challenging works ever written for cello – to the same level of artistry – but I’m glad that he didn’t.

The second half of the evening featured two big orchestral works inspired by the ocean: Sibelius’s The Oceanides and Debussy’s La Mer. Both pieces are impressionistic in style, painting scenes of calm blue expanses, mythical ocean creatures, rising swells and crashing waves. Morlot was a sensitive conductor – unimposing in presence, dressed in the traditional tailcoat, guiding the orchestra with a gentle hand, knowing when to let loose for more dramatic moments.

All up, this was a refreshing, invigorating and captivating offering of music from WASO, Morlot and Capuçon.

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Author —
Tiffany Ha

Tiffany Ha is a pianist, composer, arranger, music educator and vocalist with a soft spot for anything a cappella. She has degrees in Music (Composition) and Arts (English) from UWA and works as a freelance musician. Her favourite playground equipment is anything that involves climbing and balance: monkey bars, rope towers, trees, human pyramids!

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