Violinist Renaud Capuçon delivers a season highlight at Library of Congress

Wed Feb 20, 2019 at 11:51 am

Renaud Capuçon performed Tuesday night at the Library of Congress. Photo: Simon Fowler

Renaud Capuçon, last in Washington a decade ago, has become an extraordinary musician in the interim. The French violinist played three outstanding sonatas, all by French composers, at his Tuesday evening recital at the Library of Congress with the young French pianist Guillaume Bellom. Among their many compatriots on hand to hear them was Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

The duo opened with a superlative rendition of Debussy’s concise, intensely flavorful Violin Sonata, one in the extraordinary series of late instrumental pieces from the composer’s final year. Beginning with just the right aura of Gallic lassitude, the work blossomed into a sequence of dreamlike vignettes that flowed effortlessly into one another. Bellom matched a velvety touch at the keyboard to the dulcet tone of Capuçon’s 1737 “Panette” Guarneri del Gesù, once owned by Isaac Stern.

In the second movement, “Intermède,” Capuçon romped through the violin’s playful monologue, antic, whimsical, and light. Bellom, who gave this music heft and volume, shadowed his partner faithfully through the many accelerations and decelerations. After a fluttery, translucent introduction to the “Finale,” both musicians capered through the lightning-fast passages, a sort of swirling mist composed of wisps of sound.

Capuçon approached Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 with cheeky insouciance, taking the first movement at a brisk tempo that lessened the smoky atmosphere the piece can create. Both pianist and violinist gave the enigmatic repeated-note motif that runs through the movement a flat, percussive sound, likened by the composer to the clucking of a chicken. To match his glassy high harmonic notes in the Debussy sonata, Capuçon held onto the long notes here with a limpid tone, shimmering with vitality.

Few musicians can give such vivid life to this sonata’s second movement, “Blues,” which often comes off as a slightly bland mimicking of jazz sounds Ravel heard in the 1920s. At a genial, ambling tempo Capuçon delighted in the many scoops, smears, and blue notes in his part, while Bellom gave a rough honky-tonk finish in the piano. The third movement, “Perpetuum mobile,” was a thrilling ride, the tempo so fast that the violin runs blurred together.

For the second half, consisting of Franck’s Violin Sonata, Capuçon played on a different Guarneri del Gesù, also from the 1730s, the violin once played by Fritz Kreisler and now in the collection of the Library of Congress. This spectacular instrument sounded like a thoroughbred finally released from its stable, happy to run and full of spirit. Capuçon reveled in the whiskey-voiced tone on the G string and the searing high sound of its top string.

This performance expanded and retracted with romantic sweep and unpredictable rubato. Bellom attacked the keyboard part with orchestral scope, as in the stormy opening of the second movement, but also sensitivity, even in octaves and other large textures. In the gently paced first movement, the performers laid out the melodic themes that are transformed by Franck throughout the sonata, bringing them back with raw fire in the second movement and weaving them together hypnotically in the luxurious slow movement. With increasing turbulence and roiling tone, the duo brought the piece to a full-throated conclusion in the finale.

Announcing their single encore, Capuçon regretted that the musicians had to catch a train soon after the concert, admitting that he wanted to play the Kreisler del Gesù all night. An exquisite rendition of the “Méditation” from Massenet’s Thaïs showed off more of the purring resonance of the instrument’s lowest string, capping off a performance that makes the early short list for the year’s best concerts.

Pianist Paul Lewis plays music by Haydn and Brahms, plus Beethoven’s monumental Diabelli Variations 8 p.m. March 8 on the free concert series at the Library of Congress.

One Response to “Violinist Renaud Capuçon delivers a season highlight at Library of Congress”

  1. Posted Feb 25, 2019 at 3:57 pm by Michael

    This was easily one of the best violin performances I have ever witnessed. Capucon is a marvel, and I hope he comes back to DC often.

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