Each time we select a piece of music for WFCR, we make two decisions: the piece and the performance. Two recent close encounters with great cellists reminded me again of how the latter decision is often as important as the first.
Last Friday, The Wife and I attended a matinée concert (a real matinée, starting at 10:30 am) by the Montreal Symphony at their new Mason Symphonique. Second on the program, between Gounod's Symphony No. 1 and Roussel's Bacchus et Ariane Suite No. 2, came the Cello Concerto No. 1 by Camille Saint-Saëns. So, alongside veteran maître Michel Plasson, out came the dashing young French cellist Gautier Capuçon. You've probably heard him several times on WFCR. usually playing chamber music alongside his violinist brother Renaud. But nothing on CD prepared me for the sound I heard in person -- fine, focused, substantial, filling the hall without strain while remaining firm and round at the quietest dynamic level. He played with fire, yet the flames served not to singe but to illuminate what is essentially a neo-classical concerto in romantic dress. Wonderful.
Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey is on the long list of cellists who have recorded the Saint-Saëns -- again, you've perhaps heard his rendition on WFCR. But on Smith College on Saturday, Wispelwey performed what he described as his favorite concert program: the complete five Cello Sonatas by Beethoven. Truth to tell -- a truth admitted by Wispelwey -- these works place an even greater burden on the piano than on the cello; not for nothing did Beethoven describe them as "Sonatas for Piano and Cello". So, kudos to Boston-based pianist Lois Shapiro for her agile and fluent artistry, and to both musicians for a smooth collaboration many years in the making.
But this is a blog post on cellists, so back to Wispelwey. Playing without music in front of him ("I need glasses" was his post-concert excuse), he rendered his cello parts as if speaking the lines of a play, giving each note its own natural stress while fitting it into the context of the phrase, the phrased grouped into larger sentences, and so on until you could practically hear Beethoven himself speaking to you through his music. Informed by his extensive experience with historic instruments (he has recorded these sonatas on both "period" and "modern" cellos), Wispelwey used vibrato sparingly but tellingly. Also telling was his pre-concert comment that while he listens avidly to other cellists' recordings of most other repertoire, he shies away from other renditions of the core works of Bach and Beethoven. He has his own story to tell with Beethoven's Sonatas -- as do many other cellists who, by playing the same notes, make very different music.