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.

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