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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano in A minor, D. 821 (1824) [25:35]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102 (1849) [16:37]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Sonata for Cello and Piano (1915) [10:39]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Sonata for Cello and Piano in C, Op. 65 (1961) [21:30]
Gautier Capuçon (cello); Frank Braley (piano)
rec. Salle Colonne, Paris, France, 20 July 2013 (Schumann); Markus-Sittikus-Saal, Hohenems, Austria, 1-3 December 2012 (all others)
WARNER ERATO 9341582 [74:29]

Cellist Gautier Capuçon has included a note in the CD booklet stating that he and pianist Frank Braley wanted to pay tribute to two twentieth-century legends, Mstislav Rostropovich and Benjamin Britten. Thus, they recorded the same works their illustrious predecessors put down for Decca in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The obvious task for this reviewer was to compare the new recordings with those of Rostropovich and Britten. Overall, I find Capuçon and Braley in no way inferior to those legends. 

Capuçon waited until now to record the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata because he had not felt up to the task before. Having played Schubert trios and quartets for the past ten years, he now was ready to record the sonata with Braley with whom he has worked for a long time. Based on the account here, it has been worth the wait. Next to Capuçon and Braley, Rostropovich and Britten sound rather heavy and too deliberate. It is not just a matter of tempos, though the latter team are nearly two minutes slower in the first movement, but of approach to the music. I’ve long preferred Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax in this sonata because they play it simply and beautifully without overdoing the Romantic aspects of the work. The duo here now make the Ma/Ax performance sound just a little plain with its more restricted dynamic range. Nevertheless, I will want to hear them from time to time. On the other hand, Rostropovich and Britten’s interpretation is overstated compared to the others. The cellist’s tone is gorgeous but he seems to dominate the proceedings more than he should. Capuçon and Braley are somewhere in the middle. They bring out the Romantic ardour of the piece well and with just enough rubato to make it interesting, but without distorting the rhythms. They are a true partnership, too, with the cellist not overly dominating the work. That said, Capuçon’s cello playing is wonderfully songful and beautiful. This work was not originally intended for the cello. However, since the arpeggione for which it was composed had such a limited life, it is most often played on the cello. I think it suits that instrument well because of its range, rather than the more limited viola on which it is also performed.
The Debussy Cello Sonata is one of three chamber sonatas from late in the composer’s life. It packs a lot of material in its short duration and is both whimsical and enigmatic. Debussy initially considered calling it “Pierrot angry with the moon”, owing to his preoccupation with the figures of the harlequinade. It has always been one of my favorite Debussy works along with the Violin Sonata and Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp that comprise the other two sonatas of this period. Capuçon and Braley likewise have the measure of this sonata. It receives as good a performance as I have ever heard, including the wonderful Rostropovich/Britten account. It is possible Capuçon’s being French had a positive effect, for in addition to the power he provides a certain winning elegance.
Schumann’s Pieces in Folk Style are from the composer’s productive year of 1849 before his mental state completely deteriorated and his attempt at suicide. From the mood of these pieces with their freshness and originality one would not guess that Schumann was in such a fragile state. These miniatures are for the most part lighthearted with the first piece marked “with humour”, followed by a lullaby, a ballad, a march, and a zesty finale. Rostropovich and Britten are indeed hard to beat in this work. I find their slow movements so songful with Rostropovich’s rich cello tone bringing utter perfection to these pieces. Capuçon and Braley are no slouches either and do justice to this work, but even in the faster movements, such as the finale, there is a certain joy in Rostropovich/Britten’s account that is infectious. I don’t want to overemphasize this because Capuçon/Braley are very good.
The disc concludes with the Cello Sonata Benjamin Britten composed for Rostropovich, for whom he also wrote his three Cello Suites and Cello Symphony. While the Rostropovich/Britten recording retains its authoritativeness, there have been more recent versions that have challenged but not surpassed them. Such is the recording under review here. In the first movement Rostropovich/Britten are a bit faster and more lyrical, while Capuçon/Braley are more assertive - even aggressive at times. Rostropovich’s playing in the second movement, Scherzo-Pizzicato, is guitar-like, while Capuçon’s pizzicato is more reminiscent of Bartók in the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Capuçon/Braley are heavier and darker in the third movement Elegia with their tread being very Slavic and reminding me of Shostakovich. By contrast Rostropovich/Britten are warmer with the piano less prominent, but with exceptionally sensitive playing by both artists. The same is true for the fourth movement march that is spiky and eerie with excellent dialogue between Rostropovich and Britten. Capuçon/Braley are not as incisive and a bit heavier, but also excellent as a team. Both teams contribute a very exciting finale and neither disappoints in any way. Another recording of the Britten I reviewed here by cellist Jakob Koranyi and pianist Peter Friis Johansson (Caprice Records) is also fine with superb sound. We are quite spoilt for choice when it comes to Britten’s Sonata.
Although the programme duplicates Rostropovich/Britten, I heartily commend this disc for all lovers of cello/piano music. Capuçon and Braley give superb performances of these works, which are representative of the composers’ oeuvre. The recorded sound is close, but not at all claustrophobic, with sufficient space around the instruments. In addition to Capuçon’s note there is a good discussion of the works. One anomaly in the listing of the pieces is that Schubert’s sonata is given as in A major rather than A minor. All the references I have seen have it in the minor key in which it begins.
Leslie Wright 

Britten discography & review index: Cello sonata