"They thought it was for TV or something. But there was no TV. Only me and my violin"

The work that inspired a top violinist to play along in the pit with the Paris Opéra orchesta — twice.

Photo © Simon Fowler

I’m speaking to Renaud Capuçon on the phone to finalise a playlist for IDAGIO. He’s in the midst of the Aix-en-Provence Easter Festival, which he founded in 2013, and one early-morning appointment has already had to be abandoned to squeeze some more practice into the schedule. The violinist is relaxed and chatty, but the slight rush means there’s been no opportunity to make any preparations before we talk, to zero in on a theme for his playlist.

We’re just a few minutes into the conversation, though, and he’s already enumerated the beauties of the Brahms Trios recordings by Isaac Stern, Leonard Rose and Eugene Istomin, as well as John Eliot Gardiner’s most recent recording of Bach’s B Minor Mass. The link with the former is personal: ‘I got this CD when I was very young,’ Capuçon tells me, ‘and it’s also a piece that I played when I was very young.’ It’s also a recording on which Stern, one of Capuçon’s teachers, is playing the violin that the Frenchman plays today — he has a letter from him stating it. ‘It’s very special for me to hear these trios knowing that I play the same instrument. But of course, when I was listening to it when I was ten, I had no idea that I’d be playing the same instrument!’

Photo © Mark Ribes

The choice of Gardiner’s Bach — the second of the English conductor’s recordings with his English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi choir — was inspired by Capuçon hearing them perform the work last year. ‘It’s such a masterpiece, and Bach’s music in general makes me peaceful, but this piece in particular. It’s like medication; it’s like spiritual food.’ And why Gardiner? ‘Because I think it’s so pure what he does, how he deals with the harmonies and how he deals with the form of the piece.’ That performance Gardiner gave in Aix-en-Provence Capuçon describes as one of the most memorable of his life: ‘I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was pure music.’

We’ve jumped straight into these recommendations, but in the back of my mind I’m wondering how to steer the conversation. Sacred Bach and secular Brahms will be tricky, to put it mildly, to tie together into the sort of theme we aim for in these playlists. I try to steer us in a specific direction, maybe one composer? Capuçon responds swiftly. ‘Ok, then we could talk about Strauss, because Richard Strauss is one of my favourite composers — built around his Metamorphosen.’

Richard Strauss in a portrait by Max Liebermann

It’s a slightly unexpected turn, onto a composer who has not featured as heavily as some in Capuçon’s recordings. Strauss’s output, built primarily around his tone poems and his operas, is relatively light on chamber music and solo violin works. But that hasn’t stopped Capuçon. He has recorded the early Violin Sonata, but it hasn’t been released yet — it’s still ‘in the fridge’, he tells me. ‘I’ve played the piano quartet, the trio…everything that was written for violin. I’ve even played the Concerto, which nobody plays! In fact, I’ve played it quite a lot, and the slow movement reminds me of the slow movement of the Second Horn Concerto.’

It’s the Metamorphosen, though, Strauss’s late work for 23 strings that is at the basis of Capuçon’s love for the composer — ‘my piece,’ he calls it. He tells me about falling for the work at the Conservatoire in Paris, phoning up friends to put on a performance with the conductor Stéphane Denève, also a student there at the time. ‘I’ll never forget the first read-through,’ he tells me. ‘We were all discovering this masterpiece, and it’s held a very special place in my life ever since. What I love is the fact that it’s just one sound: it’s 23 people serving, with different parts, one composition and one composer.’

Other formative Straussian experiences for Capuçon came with playing his works as leader of the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester: the tone poems Don Quixote and Ein Heldenleben with Seiji Ozawa, for example. Both contain extensive violin solos, especially Ein Heldenleben (‘A Hero’s Life’), where the orchestra’s leader embodies the part of the ‘Hero’s Companion’. Not only that, Capuçon played the Four Last Songs with the orchestra under Claudio Abbado. He recently came across a video of himself playing the long violin solo in the third of the songs, ‘Beim Schlafengehen’. ‘I realised how, with his left arm, he was actually driving my right [bowing] arm. He’s phrasing so much and he’s directing me, conducting me, making me play in a way I didn’t know I was able to!’

• Playlist – Renaud Capuçon: my Richard Strauss top five

With his last choice, however, we get to a work that Capuçon has taken unexpected steps to perform. Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio, is a ‘conversation piece’ dealing with the subject of opera itself and completed in midst of the catastrophe of World War II, in 1941. Instead of an overture it opens with a gentle string sextet. Getting to perform that presents Capuçon with few problems: he tends to schedule it in concert, he tells me, with the sextet version of the Metamorphosen. He’s even found a solution for performing the Moonlight Music, the moving interlude the precedes the opera’s final scene: he got a friend to produce an arrangement of it for violin and piano.

To take part in a full performance of the work requires something more drastic, but even that presents no major hurdle for Capuçon. ‘When I saw it was planned at the opera in Paris,’ he recalls, ‘I asked my friend [Opéra de Paris music director] Philippe Jordan: “Please can I play with you? I want to be in the pit, I’m so in love with it!” He couldn’t believe it. We asked the musicians whether they’d accept it, and they didn’t understand. They thought it was for TV or something. But there was no TV. Nothing. Only me and my violin! I did two rehearsals and two performances. I could see the stage from where I was in the first violins, and I enjoyed everything about it. It was one of the most amazing times of my life.’

You can find Renaud Capuçon’s My Top Five Richard Strauss playlist here; Listen to his new recording of Bartók’s Violin Concertos here.

Hugo Shirley · Published
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