Thursday, March 21, 2024

I concerti dell'Aula Magna - Gautier Capuçon & Frank Braley - Absolute Beethoven - 03/16/24

Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 1 in F Major (Op. 5, No. 1) 
Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major (Op. 102, No. 1) 
Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 2 in G Minor (Op. 5, No. 2) 
Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major (Op. 69) 
Ludwig van Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major (Op. 102, No. 2) 
Frank Braley: Piano 
Gautier Capuçon: Cello 

 Since I started spending my winters in Rome, my mom pretty much decided that her February birthday would be as good an excuse as any to come for a visit. This year, however, she had figured out that coming in March would enable her to enjoy longer days and milder temperatures (One thing she had not factored in though, was the more sudden weather changes that come with early spring, as she learned the hard way upon her arrival. Oh well). 
Another decisive factor for the timing of her visit this year was the recital of French cellist Gautier Capuçon, an admittedly terrific musician she has been innocently stalking since his beginnings, with Frank Braley, his frequent music partner she is quite familiar with as well, last Saturday afternoon. Even better, the program featured the entire set of sonatas for cello and piano by no less than Ludwig van Beethoven and, seriously, who does not love Beethoven? 
Although La Sapienza’s Aula Magna is unfortunately no longer within walking distance from my Roman home, I was still looking forward to being back in its intimate space, never mind the proudly fascist decor. Just because these days I have been getting my classical music fix at the Auditorium Parco della Musica does not mean I have forgotten all the smaller but just as wonderful performances I attended on La Sapienza’s campus. 
So last Saturday, after a work-filled morning, an unplanned but yummy Nepalese lunch in my old neighborhood, and a leisurely visit of the always stunning and blissfully uncrowded Terme di Diocleziano, we found ourselves in very good seats in the packed Aula Magna auditorium for a concert we had started planning about six months before its actual date. 

And I am happy to say that it was all worth the wait. Having seen them perform together often in the past, my mom claimed that Capuçon and Braley, long-time buddies since their days at the Conservatoire de Paris, haven’t let their now prestigious and busy individual careers get in the way of the tight musical bond they share. And sure enough, their joy of playing together was immediately evident on Saturday as they first launched into, logically enough, Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 1 in F Major (Op. 5, No. 1). 
Fact is, the Cello Sonata Op. 5, No. 1, and Beethoven’s other early sonata, the Cello Sonata No. 2 in G Minor (Op. 5, No. 2), are not only delightful compositions, but they were also ground-breaking works that boldly (and finally) gave the cello its own voice. No longer stuck in the continuo instrument role where it had been languishing forever, the cello was now an equal partner, with all the excitement and responsibility, not to mention possibilities, that new-found status entailed. 
On Saturday, in the hands of the confirmed wizard that is Capuçon, the cello gorgeously expressed itself with expertly burnished tones and naturally dignified gravity. Not to be outdone, Braley made sure to display an equally virtuosic disposition, and handled his part with plenty of confidence and zest. Thanks to those two gentlemen, the Op. 5 sonatas sounded as fresh and inventive as they probably did when they first came out in 1796 and quickly made history. 
Book-ended by the two Op. 5 sonatas stood the Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major (Op. 102, No. 1), the first of the two late sonatas, the one that is sometimes called the “Free Sonata” due to its avant-garde structure. Yes, Beethoven was breaking new ground again in terms of innovation and complexity about two decades after his first cello sonatas, and the result was as awe-inspiring as ever. The only difference being that, unlike the unconventional late works’ occasionally confused and frustrated audiences, we happily gobbled it all up. 
The Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major (Op. 102, No. 2), which concluded Beethoven’s experiments with cello sonatas, and also wrapped up the official program on Saturday, is such a true marvel that it is no wonder the composer decided to quit the genre after he was done with it. Its most memorable feature is without a doubt the long and slow, and ever-changing, middle movement, in which the cello unabashedly and brilliantly takes the spotlight, before transitioning surprisingly and seamlessly into the glorious finale
Right before, the middle Cello Sonata No. 3 in A Major (Op. 69), which is definitely the longest and arguably the most popular of the five, had opened the second part of the concert with the kind of brazenly heroic élan, and no real slowing down, that Beethoven would have loved. So much intense drama, so little time. That one could actually boast of being the most Beethovian of them all, and it would be mightily hard to disagree. 

Besides his superior musicianship, Capuçon is also well-known for being particularly generous when it comes to encores. Therefore, our hearts started to sink when, after a couple of rounds of effusive applause, the lights came back on in the concert hall, and people started to leave in droves. What??? Fortunately, the remaining few eventually got what we were all still dearly hoping for when, after finally settling down again, the duo treated us to an impeccably soaring, deeply soulful version of the perennially favorite “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thais. And that was all. And that was perfect.

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia - Debussy, Sibelius & Prokofiev - 02/24/24

Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune 
Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 
Sergei Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100 
Conductor: Paavo Järvi 
Violin: Augustin Hadelich 

After a short but very pleasant week in Naples, I came back to Rome with my friend Vittorio in tow as I was determined to do my darndest to reciprocate his superlative hospitality. Since he had been eager for a while to attend a concert in Parco della Musica’s admittedly wonderful auditorium Ennio Morricone, and his wishes are my commands, I had been looking for the right program at the right time. 
I eventually found it in the performance calendar of the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, the Parco’s resident ensemble and sure-fire guarantee of full satisfaction. Because, seriously, who wouldn’t go for an eclectic array of defining works from French, Finnish and Russian composers, a well-regarded Estonian-American conductor, and a highly acclaimed Italo-Germano-American violinist? 
So there we were, on Saturday evening at my usual 6:00 PM time, in the not quite full auditorium, a fact that might have been be explained by the unusual number of violin concertos presented within those walls lately. That said, the Sibelius is, as far as I am concerned, the one that stands above the abundance of richness that is the violin concerto repertoire, and any opportunity to hear it simply has to be grabbed. 

Frequently appearing on concert programs as the opener, Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune has the perfect length for the job indeed. But the 10-minute jewel is also well-known for its ethereal beauty and dreamy atmosphere, as well as its bold revolutionary nature, so it is no surprise that it is unfailingly such a big hit with audiences. And Saturday evening was no different as the orchestra created a timeless magical world overflowing with delicate exoticism, exquisite harmonies, and let’s not forget those gorgeous solos. It really never gets old. 
After having gratefully yielded to the hypnotic power of Debussy and his faun, we happily moved on to the equally hypnotic opening of Jean Sibelius’ violin concerto courtesy of Augustin Hadelich. I was thrilled when I first saw his name on the program because I had heard him superbly play that same piece in New York City a few years ago, and therefore knew we were in very good hands. And sure enough, on Saturday he proved one more time what an artlessly brilliant artist he is, handling the technical challenges with impressive ease and the emotional charge with unwavering commitment. 
We rewarded his bona fide tour de force with so much enthusiasm that he treated us to two unusual and thrilling encores, first his very own—and very fun—arrangement of Howdy Forrester’s Appalachian tune “the Wild Fiddler's Rag”, and then his instrumental version of the ever-popular Argentine tango song “Por una cabeza” (If you’ve watched The Scent of a Woman or Schindler’s List, you’ve definitely heard it, and probably loved it). 

I had honestly come to the concert for the first half of it and could have easily left at intermission totally satisfied. But then again, there’s no denying the appeal of Prokofiev’s music. Written within the span of an obviously very busy month, his fifth symphony shows an irrepressible spirit that was direly needed in 1944, and is unfortunately still direly needed today, since we apparently have not learned much in the past 80 years. 
Context aside, it is also an exciting wide-ranging composition that includes some not necessarily standard symphonic instruments like two harps and a piano, which ended up contributing lots of cool sounds to the overall experience. Add to that the restless creative mind of Prokofiev, and you have a sprawling work that is as profound as entertaining. The orchestra and guest conductor Paavo Järvi were obviously keen on doing it justice, all 45 minutes of it, and they fully succeeded. Just as I had at least partly succeeded in paying off my debt of gratitude.