Renaud Capuçon: “I want to be better than the day before”
© Aart van der Wal, January 2010
Discography: click here
Capuçon’s ‘official’ biography substantiates a great musical career. When the French Victoires de la Musique nominated Renaud Capuçon as “New Talent of the Year” in 2000 and an international jury named him “Rising Star of 2000”, they confirmed his place among the leading violinists of his generation.
He was born in Chambéry in 1976 and began studying at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris at the age of 14 with Gérard Poulet and Veda Reynolds. In 1992, he was awarded First Prize for Chamber Music and in 1993, First Prize for violin with a special distinction from the jury. In 1995, he won the Prize of the Berlin Academy of Arts and went on to study with Thomas Brandis and later, Isaac Stern. He held, by special invitation from Claudio Abbado, the position of the concertmaster of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, having the opportunity to work with Pierre Boulez, Seiji Ozawa, Daniel Barenboim, Franz Welser-Möst and Claudio Abbado.
In addition to his debut in November 2002 with the Berlin Philharmonic
under Bernard Haitink, he performed with many of the most prestigious
orchestras in Germany, France, Israel, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland,
Poland, Japan, Canada and the UK, working with world renowned conductors
such as Christian Arming, Myung-Whun Chung, Jean-Claude Casadesus, Charles
Dutoit, Semyon Bychkov, Christoph Eschenbach, Ivan Fischer, Rafael Frühbeck
de Burgos, Hans Graf, Daniel Harding, Gunther Herbig, Armin Jordan, Philippe
Jordan, Emmanuel Krivine, Marc Minkowski, John Nelson, Michel Plasson,
David Robertson, Michael Schonwandt, Leif Segerstram, and Wolfgang Sawallisch
In 1999, Renaud Capuçon released his first recording for Virgin Classics, the Schubert recital “Grand Duo” with Jérôme Ducros. Now an exclusive Virgin Classics artist, he has since recorded several CDs: Ravel’s Piano Trio and Violin Sonata with Gautier Capuçon and pianist Frank Braley; French works for violin and orchestra with Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Daniel Harding; music of Dutilleux with Truls Mørk, the Radio France Philharmonic and Myung-Whun Chung; Face à Face, contemporary duos for violin and cello, with Gautier Capuçon; and Brahms’ Piano Trios No 1, 2 and 3 with Gautier Capuçon and the American pianist Nicholas Angelich. In 2008, Renaud Capuçon, in collaboration with Jerome Ducros, released “Capriccio” featuring an appetizing selection of short pieces that pay tribute to legendary violinists of the 20th century, including Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. He also recorded the Schubert Trio Op 100 and the Trout Quintet on Erato, and the Schumann Quintet on DG. For EMI Classics he recorded the Franck Violin Sonata in A with Lilya Zilberstein and Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No 1 with Martha Argerich and Gautier Capuçon.
In March of 2009, he released a new recording on the Virgin Classics label of Mozart’s Violin Concertos Nos 1 and 3 and Sinfonia Concertante with Antoine Tamistat, under Louis Langrée and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Renaud His recording of the complete Brahms Sonatas with Nicholas Angelich was an “Editor's Choice” by Gramophone Magazine. His recording of Schubert’s Trout Piano Quintet for Virgin Classics with Gautier Capuçon, Gérard Caussé, Alois Posch and Frank Braley was also an “Editor’s Choice” in March 2005, and “Disc Of The Month” in February 2005 by Classic FM.
Renaud Capuçon plays a 1737 Guarneri del Gesù, the "Panette" that once belonged to Isaac Stern, bought for him by the Banca Svizzera Italiana.
Source: Renaud Capuçon
I met the French violinist Renaud Capuçon on a cold and snowy Saturday morning in Rotterdam, in his hotel next to the concert hall, where he played Berg’s Violin Concerto with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Philippe Jordan.
I started the interview with some references to the traditional use of portamento, the habit of sliding between the notes. It usually turns up ahead of time at the pitch of the ascending or descending second note and left its mark in musical expression. It gradually faded in the course of the fifties, when orchestras and soloists started to clear up textures and to achieve a more clear articulation. However, in the last few decades many violinists revealed the rather pernicious habit of excessive vibrato on just about each and every note. Even musicians of great stature, adored by many listeners and critics throughout the world, were wobbling all over the score, instead of using vibrato just sparingly. It appeared to be the wrong idea of adopting vibrato as the main tool to add expression to the music. Hilary Hahn playing the Barber Violin Concerto in that fashion came into my mind.
I got the impression that Renaud Capuçon agreed with my observations: “I am one of the violinists who adapt lots of bowing as their means of expression. I am using the right arm a lot, so to speak. The other, maybe even more important thing is that there are fashions. For instance, when you listen to Jacques Thibaud it might be just too much for our ears today, but you know, sometimes it works. It all comes down to proportions, to find the right balance, which is in fact the very essence of music making anyway. Yes, as you said, there was a time that portamento was almost forbidden, but nowadays? Take Frank Peter Zimmermann for instance, who is doing those portamenti sometimes. He came back to this, and frankly, it is really nice.”
I dropped the idea that Zimmerman´s style could be just a shade out of fashion, but Renaud took a firm stand: “It sounds out of fashion, but who is deciding about fashion anyway? Look at baroque style, how to play Bach now. It seems so extreme. When you hear Arthur Grumiaux or Henryk Szeryng in a Bach Partita it might sound as being out of fashion, but it will always be in fashion! Or people will tell you that you have to play with this or that bow, on such or such strings, and that you should not do this or that. But finally you return to for instance Grumiaux of a few decades back and you might feel that it is so extreme what is said nowadays about portamenti. I feel that today I have more freedom as a violinist, I can do things in the way I feel most appropriate. Anyway, who would want to play without feeling comfortable with that?”
But we still have that excessive vibrato, don’t we?
“Vibrato? Yes, it has been overused. When you listen to those old recordings of great violinists you hear that they use their right arm a lot as a way of expression, where currently many young violinists are using the left hand instead, which makes their play less personal. Hearing this new generation on for instance the radio you don’t recognise them. Really great players with their own unique style you distinguish instantly, like Gidon Kremer, Christian Tetzlaff, Pinchas Zukerman, Maxim Vengerov, Frank Peter Zimmermann…”
Or Thomas Zehetmair? Or Kyung Wha Chung? Or Fritz Kreisler, Yehudi Menuhin, Joseph Szigeti, Nathan Milstein, Mischa Elman?
“And Christian Ferras, David Oistrakh and many others! Of course, they are all real musical personalities, you identify them at once!” That does not happen with the new generation, let’s say from twenty to forty, which is much more difficult to recognise by the ear alone. Everyone is technically gifted, but you don’t recall a particular sound, the kind of unique ‘fingerprint’ of for instance a great musicians we just mentioned.”
What did your teachers say about ‘vibrato style’? Especially Veda Reynolds must have exposed her what I would call historically rooted conscience?
“Yes, she was a student of Efrem Zimbalist, Carl Flesch and Georges Enesco and therefore so strongly linked with that old, not to say classic tradition! Veda spent hours and hours to teach me how to play with my right arm, from here (he points to his arm). Of course, we worked on vibrato, but the main thing was to make the sound using the right arm, the pressure on the bow, its angle, the phrasing, the importance you give to one note and the other, everything that comes from the right arm. In fact, this is or should be your ‘print’ as a violinist.”
I recalled what other students of Reynolds said about her teaching. One of her many great assets was that she taught her students to really listen to what they were doing; and by doing so to find out what was really needed to make the necessary corrections. Practising is not just a matter of playing through a score but of very hard working, getting to the bottom of it. At the end the student might feel rewarded by his own changed musical personality. This is all about practising and gradually shifting the attitude to the piece on hand.
We talked about exploiting musical talent to the very limit, mainly for marketing and sales purposes, without paying much if any attention to the necessity of slowly albeit consistently developing a musical career. The absolutely distasteful idea that the investment in the artist should be recouped in the shortest possible period of time. Sometimes the artist is to blame, that he or she wants too much too quickly, or that he moves from one record label to the other to enjoy a better offer, without any further consideration and hardly appreciating the scope of the investment by his previous label to push his name into the market. Apart from all that, we have some new artists like Batiashvili, Benedetti, Khachatyran, Frang, Ferschtman and Lamsma showing off absolute confidence in their art, although they are well aware that critics worldwide are sharpening their knives when it comes to judging their performances and recordings.
“There is that huge tendency and an equally huge fashion-kind of thing to promote artists. Because of the CD companies, the internet, multimedia, all those new things, the phenomenon of ‘nouveauté’ in the world of today, where everything moves so quickly, or evaporates before it really got started. It is the absolutely wrong idea of this or that great musical talent that must be booked all over the world, here, there and everywhere, and then…burn it. This happens quite a lot. Sometimes these ‘talents’ do not have any idea about how to play chamber music, they just know five or six concerti and when you speak to them or hear their sound there is no culture, no real underpinning. Who would like to be ‘programmed’ like that?”
“I am playing now in public for more or less ten years, and I am always aware of what I feel is essential: to think of my life in about forty years from now. My main objective is to be a musician, and a really good one as long as I can be, but without overstressing myself. I never intended to be a star for two years or so. I want to be with music all my life. It is really funny that in these last ten years I saw some artists arriving and then totally disappearing. Every five years there seems to be a big burst. But Lisa Batiashvili for instance is an artist that will definitely stay.”
I asked him whether impresarios or agents should not play a key role in accompanying, in guiding their artists, not to say in protecting them, instead of smoothly channelling their protégés through the labyrinth of the music scene. This would apply first of all to singers because nothing wears out quicker than an abused voice.
“It is not really the agents’ fault in the first place, but more a combination of things. It may begin with the artists themselves, mostly quite young, and often pushed by their parents, or by their teacher. These are the artists who don’t know, they only see stars in heaven, and not the landscape. For a young person of, let me say, eighteen or nineteen this is very difficult to assess and to appreciate that this is not particularly the world of glamour but of sacrifice. I am not complaining but I am just saying what it is, apart from living in a suitcase.”
Playing at the top means consecutively giving your very best. It cannot always be that way, there are down winds along the path.
“For a violinist it is even more difficult. You can’t just always be or play ‘okay’. At each and every concert you have to be top. When you are less than that, one, two, or even ten times, well… Figure it out! And you have to keep practicing all the time, to know which repertoire is good for you, and which is not, which music you can play with which orchestra; and, of course, you make mistakes, but you can learn from them. You can go to China and you play something, and you are not really getting into it, it does not sit well. Or you go to the US and you have jetlag. You cannot avoid those flukes, but you can learn from them.”
Can you plan your own concerts, or are they planned for you?
“At the very beginning I had to say yes when I should have said no, but I had to start my career, and the more I played the better I could judge my possibilities and options. I got older and more mature, I got deeper into the repertoire, whereas the process of learning never stops. When I was about twenty I could not simply balance all those things. Also an artist needs time to develop, to gain experience. Now it is much easier to say yes or no. But let’s not forget: when you are young and still inexperienced you need to play a lot, even with less good programs, orchestras or conductors. It is like with getting a driver license: you need to drive first.”
What about the Berg Violin Concerto? The work is on your playlist for quite some time already. This is a far from easy work, already quite challenging in the very first bars.
“I started to play the Berg Concerto in 1998, when I was 22 years old. That is about twelve years ago and it has followed my life ever since. From the very first day I practised it I knew and felt that it could reveal a lot, but that you have to make it really clear, that the structure is the most important, to balance each and everything. When you have accomplished that you can bring much more of yourself into it, in that structure. I agree with you that the very beginning is already difficult for the soloist, not having any preceding bars by the orchestra to rely on, you are quite on your own there, but I always get into it straight away, with no hesitation whatsoever.”
I think it was Schoenberg's idea that the unity of a musical composition should stem from a single basic idea, later called the ‘developing variation’. Berg passed this on to his students. One of them, Theodor Adorno, evoked that the main principle Berg conveyed was that of variation: everything was supposed to develop out of something else and yet be intrinsically different. This has everything to do with what you called structure. The more you get into a piece like Berg’s Violin Concerto the more genius will be disclosed.
“I remember that when I studied the piece I got obsessed by its structure. Even so much that I put the violin aside and studied the score without it, just to get a clear picture of all these ‘Haupt’ and ‘Nebenstimmen’ as I marked them in my copy. And the more I studied the more of Berg’s genius emerged. It is a highly complicated piece, in which you need to give back the theme, so to speak. After that, when I played the piece with orchestra for the very first time, I felt quite okay with that, because I had it all in my mind already. I got it, so to speak. And then, when all the pieces of the puzzle are rightly in place, that both the inner and outer structure becomes clearer, the artist’s own musical personality, his musical character so to speak, may begin to flourish. Not before! And after that? He will continue to discover new things in the piece, in terms of bowing, fingering, phrasing, dynamics, balancing, structure etc. There will never be a dull moment. And no concert is the same!”
I mentioned my visit to Berg’s first-floor apartment in the Trautmannsdorfgasse 27 in Hietzing, a suburb of Vienna. It must have been somewhere in the early eighties, when I knocked on the door. A few librarians were busy with making inventory lists of the manuscripts, letters and books that were spread all over the house. Alban’s wife Helene had had left the house unchanged since the death of her husband in 1935, and after she had died in 1976 each and everything in the house was preserved or taken care of. No wonder that a couple of years later it all still reflected the ambience of the thirties. I got the opportunity to sit at his desk, to dwell through the rooms, and to pull a few books from the shelves. One of these books was Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, the left margins on the yellow-brown pages covered with Berg’s own pencil annotations. Renaud looked at me, and said with some anxiety in his voice: “Wow! This is exactly what I would like to do, to find some time when I am in Vienna and to go to places like this. And to visit the graves of Brahms and Schubert.”
The Berg Violin Concerto has a long performance history. The 1936 BBC live radio recording was the first and oldest ever of the work, by Louis Krasner with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Anton Webern (there is another live recording as well by Krasner, made in 1938, with Fritz Busch conducting the Stockholm Philharmonic)? Despite the rather awkward quality of the 1936 recording this is a real gem from the historical perspective. Like Berg, Webern was one of the composers of the Second Viennese School who had studied with Schoenberg, while Krasner had ordered the Violin Concerto from Berg just one year before, in 1935 (it became Berg’s last finished composition, as he died in that same year). But there is more to this high grade of authenticity: on 17 December 1947 Schoenberg congratulated Krasner with the ‘perfect’ and ‘convincing’ performance of his Violin Concerto, shortly after it had been broadcast. As far as I know there is no recording of this event left, but we can hear Krasner playing Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto on a live recording of 16 July 1954, with the West German radio orchestra conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos, on the GM label. From the historical perspective Krasner’s playing style can hardly be disputed and should deserve very close study by any violinist who wants to perform either the Berg or the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, or both.
“Long ago, when I heard the Krasner recording for the first time, it really shocked me. Since then I heard so many other recordings that I cannot really say which ones I adore most, although the Grumiaux (with Hans Rosbaud conducting the [Royal] Concertgebouw Orchestra, on the Philips label - AvdW) is surely one of them. I also recall the recording by Christian Ferras (with Georges Prêtre conducting the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, on the EMI Classics label - AvdW), which is a very good one as well. When you study a new work it will go with you by time, as if you feel it in your muscles, in your bones after a while. Further along the road it really becomes part of you, in terms of interpretation. It is the identity of the piece and your own identity that gradually mingle in a most mysterious way, but this is the way it goes. And, of course, there are certain technical matters which need to be resolved. I remember that when I was in Berlin I called Claudio Abbado and asked him if I could discuss the Berg Concerto with him. We knew each other quite well at that time (Capuçon held the position of concert master of the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra by Abbado’s special invitation - AvdW). I hoped he could spare me a few minutes to give some tips about performing the work. Instead, we sat together with the score and went over each and every bar. It was a fantastic experience, and quite an amazing one, with all those errors we found in the various parts. There was no really reliable printed score available at the time.”
I asked him about the Russian and French violin school.There were times that people talked about the striking differences between them, but things have changed considerably. Has it really flatten out? We already discussed musicians as look-alikes, almost like clones originating from one and the same origin.
“Nowadays it is indeed quite difficult to hear the differences. In the past it was not. Let me just remind you of two really great violinists, David Oistrakh representing the virtues of the Russian School and Christian Ferras those from the French School. Take their recordings and you instantly hears their distinction, but nowadays things have changed, there is less and less a certain school. With violinists like Francescatti, Ferras, Neveu, Grumiaux and Thibaud you really ‘feel’ the weight of the French School. The current generation does not play like that. We are in the middle of globalisation, with a blend of which it is impossible to say where it comes from. There is no definition of style, not even a specific line. Do I sound French? My teacher Veda was an American, but then, there were her teachers Flesch, Zimbalist, and Enesco. I studied with her for ten years, between eight and eighteen. She not only taught me all basic things, but truly each and everything. That did something with me, definitely. Later on, I studied with Gérard Poulet and finally with Thomas Brandis, who was a student of Max Rostal. Let me say that I am a mix of all that, with a tendency to Central Europe!"
“However, globalisation also bears some fruit! It is funny, you know. You can hear anything you want when you feel up to it. There is the internet with its numerous sound tracks, films and clips, YouTube, you name it. Before, you had to go to concerts, but now? A mouse click and you are there. I am categorically not saying that it is the same as attending a life concert, far from it, but today there are those huge multimedia and database resources. Long ago you could only hear and see Oistrakh when he came to Europe.”
It is said that a teacher may hamper students to develop their own artistic individuality. Is there some truth in it?
“In a sense, yes, but when you have ample personality you can develop in your own way. If not, you will copy. It is as simple as that. Veda was very clever, she never imposed anything. For instance, when I was studying a sonata or concerto she would always write two different fingerings, saying to me to try this and try that, and check which one is better for your hand. This is absolutely logical to me, but I can tell you that a teacher it is not always like this.”
I had been listening to Capuçons recently released recording of the Beethoven and Korngold Violin Concerto, with the Rotterdam Philharmonic conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It came to my mind that especially the Beethoven has been most frequently recorded. One of my own favourites is the performance by Zino Francescatti with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter, a recording that was first released on LP by CBS in the early sixties, and about twenty years later issued by Sony on CD. Some reviewers found Capuçon and the orchestra somewhat sluggish, particularly in the last two moments of the Beethoven Concerto. So I compared the timings of both movements and was surprised to find hardly any difference between Capuçon’s and Francescatti’s: Capuçon/Francescatti: 9.46/9.41 and 10.21/10.03. The real difference in timing is in the opening movement, with the Capuçon about a minute slower than the Francescatti.
Capuçon’s is indeed not a particularly biting performance, with its less vigorous and more lyrical than most of the competition. Capuçon’s tone is clear and silvery, but not without sentiment in his introspective approach. Nézet-Séguin is clearly on the same track, cushioning the finely graded orchestral contribution with all the fluidity the soloist could possibly have asked for in this interpretation. Would Beethoven have adored it? After hearing Kreutzer’s performance in Vienna, the composer wrote to his publisher: ‘I prefer his unassuming manner and unaffectedness to all the surface without the depth shown by most virtuosi.’ And about Clement’s playing it was said that it revealed ‘gracefulness and tenderness’. He did not have a very vigorous or powerful tone but his intonation was always secure, even in complex passages, and his bowing was of ‘great dexterity’. I might say that Capuçon’s comes pretty close here! One might even argue that this is all reflected in Beethoven’s Concerto, as he himself was not a great violinist, where the autograph score indicates that Clement was consulted before he put all the strings together.
“The Beethoven Concerto was the first concerto I played with orchestra. I feel so much in peace with this work, like with the Mendelssohn. For the Brahms I still need time; maybe I will do it two or three years from now. Yannick and I had the same ideas and feelings about the Beethoven. I like Yannick a lot and we have the same vision on music. For instance, we are crazy about the young and the old Carlo Maria Giulini, we are big fans of his conducting, his very sincere, integer approach to music. We knew already that our music making, in the Beethoven especially, would be criticised. Today’s fashion seems to be to play Beethoven at the edge, Many critics love it but to me it is not Beethoven anymore. As if to exist today you have to do something totally original.”
I mentioned one my own few favourites, Perlman, with Giulini conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, to me one of the great recordings of a century. I found some aspects of that highly spiritual and congenial performance back in Capucon’s. Coincidence?
“We thought about it, of course, but we wanted to be ourselves, we did not think like ‘if we take this or that,’ Yannick and I. For instance, we didn’t particularly want this or that tempo. Instead, we let it go, When I played it with Daniel Harding two weeks later I played it differently, the tempi were different. I work with many conductors and I can be compatible. I do not impose anything. When I would have felt incompatible I would have told Yannick that he was too slow or too fast. Listen to all those Beethoven cycles and how different the approach to this great music can be. Hear for instance the difference between Walter and Abbado; or even between the ‘two’ Abbado’s, as he recorded the symphonies twice! It changes in the course of time. How would I play the concerto ten years from now?”
Rather hesitantly I mentioned to him that artistic integrity should be
the first objective. This would be a much better course to follow than
to rely on what critics are writing, no to say that they can be awfully
wrong in their judgement!
“When reviewers compare my Beethoven recording with the Kremer/Harnoncourt, a few of them might say that mine has less personal touch. Well, maybe for them but not for me. When I play this Concerto or any work for that matter, it is entirely me, my personality, my fingerprint. There are dozens of top rated performances of the Beethoven Concerto. Yannick and I knew this, of course, as we would record one of the most recorded pieces. How to tackle it? There are only two ways: either we are frightened and put it aside for twenty years, or we do it in a most natural way. There is really nothing more there but to present our own version.”
I remarked that he combined the Beethoven with the Korngold Concerto. For whatever reason the Korngold has become very popular – not to say fashionable – nowadays among violinists and audiences. We had rather recent recordings from Znaider and Trusler, and they are pretty good.
“It is a great piece that deserves attention. There is no marketing, no commercial plan in this combination. I played both concertos many times and I felt ready to record them. The good thing with Virgin Classics is that they do not push me to record certain works. The next big concerto will most probably be the Goldmark. The Brahms Double Concerto I played a lot, I think at least a hundred times, with my brother Gautier (the cellist – click here for my interview with him - AvdW), and after a while we felt we could record it. We have decided to stop playing it together for the next two or three years. However, I shall play the Double Concerto with my brother and with both Bernard Haitink and Semyon Bychkov and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.”
I gathered that I must be a very stressful life, including those journeys
all over the world, from one hotel room to the other, albeit it is not
particularly backpacking or living in a suitcase. It must be quite comfortable,
with good eating, drinking and sleeping in five star hotels, but nevertheless.
“I think that the next ten, fifteen years will be very interesting. I intend to commission some contemporary pieces, I shall play more concerti than before, with less chamber music. I can choose the works I want to play and which concerto with which conductor and orchestra. As an example, I have now studied the Ligeti Concerto, I gradually learned the very thorny score. And I think there will be some conducting as well, like Richard Strauss’s Metamorphoses and Tchaikowsky’s Serenade for strings. Maybe that the time will come that I even will play and conduct the Bach Violin concertos. The main thing is much less hectic running, to be more relaxed, to enjoy more holidays, to have more time for my family and myself. My profession can be tiresome and after doing it for ten years now, I need to reconcile and appreciate that I cannot go on in this fashion for another ten, twenty years.”
Did he know Marcus Salzman’s book The soloist? There is is the story of the musician in there who is so much obsessed by perfect intonation that at the end he gives it all up, realising he cannot achieve it. That supreme goal is and remains beyond his reach.
“As soon as I start thinking about it, it will go wrong. All violinists know how difficult the first stanza in Beethoven’s Concerto is, directly after the orchestral exposition. It can easily get wide of the mark there, with those notes apparently coming out of the blue. Of course, it can happen that one note is higher than the other, or that I instantly need to adapt, which affects the music. I would like to play one note a little bit higher or lower, to keep the line in a fantastic concert, instead of having each and everything perfect in a lifeless or dull performance! But honestly, I am more worrying that the music is simply not there. I am not scared prior to a performance, but excited, I feel anxious to give whatever I have to make great music. Moreover, I want to be better than the day before, and I want to be innovative. When I would not have this anymore, I should stop playing in public.”