© Don Satz, April 2006
Haydn: Cello Concerto in C major, Hob. VIIb:1 - in D major, Hob. VIIb:2 - in D major, Hob. VIIb:4.
Gautier Capuçon (cello), Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding.
Virgin Classics 5455602 • 66' •
When I received this Virgin Classics disc for review, I immediately opened the booklet to read about Gautier Capuçon and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The effort was not a fruitful one, as the booklet notes only go into detail about the music. Fortunately, I was able to get some information courtesy of the Internet. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra has its own website, and the Virgin Classics website has a concise biography of Capuçon.
The Mahler Chamber Orchestra was founded in 1997 under the guidance of Claudio Abbado. The group has 49 members covering 15 nationalities, and the average age is only 29. They play in the neighborhood of 65 concerts a year, and the repertoire extends from Baroque to new compositions. The Orchestra even performs operas including Alban Berg’s "Wozzeck". Daniel Harding has been the principal guest conductor since 1998 and will assume the role of music director this coming September.
Gautier Capuçon, born in 1981 in Chambéry, is the younger brother of violinist Renaud Capuçon. Gautier began playing the cello at the age of 5 and studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur Musique in Paris. He has won a number of first prizes at cello competitions and performed with leading conductors including Claudio Abbado, Bernard Haitink, Kent Nagano, Pierre Boulez and Daniele Gatti.
In addition to being a concert soloist, Capuçon is a member of a trio with his brother and the pianist Frank Braley; they already have a Virgin Classics disc of Ravel chamber works to their credit. Capuçon’s usual instrument of choice is a 1701 Matteo Goffriler cello and it sounds wonderful on this Haydn disc.
For many years, my standard for Haydn’s C major and D major Concertos has been the EMI recording from Mstislav Rostropovich with Iona Brown conducting the Academy of St. Martin-in- the-Fields. These performances are treasured for their excitement and emotional investment. Rostropovich makes the cello sing superbly as he finds every kernel of meaning, while Brown always keeps in step with Rostropovich’s flair for dramatics and intensity.
Capuçon and Braley offer a different take on the music. First, they are much leaner and convey more detail. Although not lacking in excitement in the outer movements, their performances do not attain the sheer weight of the Rostropovich. So, there tends to be a trade-off of excitement for detail between the two versions.
The slow middle movements also entail trade-offs; the Rostropovich versions are slower and allow for much poignancy and depth. As an example, Harding clocks in at only 6 ½ minutes in the C major Adagio, while Brown extends the music to 8 ½ minutes. Harding’s advantage is enhanced stature, while Capuçon offers pungency that Rostropovich’s modern cello can’t possibly match.
Speaking of Capuçon’s period cello, it is a glorious instrument of beauty and incisiveness. Given that Capuçon at this stage of his career can’t make a cello sing as well as Rostropovich, I would give up a day’s income just to hear Rostropovich play the 1701 Matteo Goffriler.
One additional consideration in deciding between Rostropovich and Capuçon is the Benjamin Britten cadenza used by Rostropovich in the C major’s 1st Movement. This cadenza has a late romantic and even 20th century sensibility, which is entirely absurd for a Haydn composition. At best, it sounds silly – at worst, it is a pathetic appendage. Capucon’s liner notes do not specify the origin of his cadenza, but it sounds similar to the idiomatic Heinrich Schiff cadenza from his Philips recording.
The last cello concerto on the Capuçon program is one of a few spurious concertos still carrying Haydn’s name. Although pleasant enough and certainly worthy of occasional listening, the work doesn’t display the variety of architecture or inspiration of themes one would normally find in a Haydn composition. Each of the three movements tends to get bogged down through repetition and slack writing.
In conclusion, the Capuçon disc is a fine alternative to the full-bodied Rostropovich performances. Both Capuçon and Harding offer lean and incisive performances of Haydn’s vibrant concertos. With the added virtues of an exceptional period cello and crisp soundstage, the disc is heartily recommended to all Haydn and period instrument enthusiasts.