The second of the three concerts of the cellist Gautier Capuçon, artist-in-residence at the 77th annual Prague Spring Festival, will be his recital with the pianist Jérôme Ducros. “He is my oldest musical partner; I’ve been playing with him since I was 15 years old,” says Capuçon about their quarter century of collaboration. Together at the Rudolfinum’s Dvořák Hall, they will perform the loveliest works of their shared repertoire – Debussy’s evocative Sonata for Cello and Piano, the Sonata in E minor by Johannes Brahms, and the sonata by César Franck. “I’ve been playing Brahms’s Sonata in E minor since I was 12 years old, so it reminds me of my youth,” confides the cellist. “It contains all of Brahms’s romanticism, but with its elegantly refined minuet as the second movement, it is very classical at the same time,” he adds. In 2022 it will have been exactly 200 years since the birth of César Franck. “His music will appear on lots of programmes”, says the festival programming director Josef Třeštík. “There is a whole big story told about the composing of Franck’s sonata”, explains Capuçon. “Franck was visited by the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe who is said to have seen two movements of a cello sonata written out. He was so enthusiastic that Franck then composed the remaining two movements for violin. So today the work is listed as a violin sonata, but it ought to be half and half,” says the cellist with a laugh. “I think we cellists deserve this work.”
Nearly a quarter century had passed since Claude Debussy had written his famous String Quartet before the composer returned to writing chamber music. Actually, at the time he was getting back to writing music at all—after the outbreak of the First World War, facing a struggle against cancer, he fell silent as a composer for nearly a year. In 1915, however, he went back to work fully energised. Among other things, he planned to write a cycle of six sonatas for various combinations of instruments, thereby paying tribute to French masters of the 18th century while highlighting the uniqueness of French culture during those uncertain times. By the time of his death, he had managed to write only three of those sonatas. The first, the Sonata for Cello and Piano in D minor, shows in less than 11 minutes that Debussy is rightly called the “father of modern music.” In it, he skilfully combines reminiscences of Baroque music with his own typical pentatonicism and playful handling of colour, adding a mix of modal harmonies, rhythmic surprises, and experimentation with the sonic possibilities of the cello in particular (glissando, flautando, pizzicato). It is with good reason that we regard this sonata as one of the most important works of the 20th-century cello literature.
The king of 19th-century chamber music Johannes Brahms began composing his Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor Op. 38 in the summer of 1862, a few months before his arrival in Vienna. In the work, he put to good use his in-depth study of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and of the legacy of Ludwig van Beethoven without having any idea that one day history would assign him a place alongside those greats in a holy trinity of composers known as the “Three Bs”. He conceived the three-movement work so that the instrumental partners would be entirely equals with their voices intertwined in perfect polyphony. The original title, Sonata for Piano and Cello, also confirms the equal importance of the piano part. The whole composition is permeated with Baroque elements, then the most room is given to them in the fugal finale based on Contrapunctus 13 from Bach’s Art of the Fugue. To a certain density, Brahms adds his own unmistakeable lyricism, daring lightness, and harmonic richness, and like Beethoven he combines contrapuntal elements with sonata form.
Few lovers of the string literature will not know the lovely Cello Sonata in A major by César Franck (1822–1890), which the composer originally wrote for violin, and which he dedicated to the Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe in 1886 as a wedding gift. We know from Ysaÿe that Franck initially had a cello sonata in mind. That may also be why had gave his permission for a leading French cellist Jules Delsart (1844–1900), who had fallen in love with the work, to arrange it for his own instrument. Several more arrangements have been made, including versions for flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, and even violin with orchestral accompaniment, but the cello version is the only arrangement that Franck authorised. The four-movement composition is structured in a cyclical form, so in all of the movements, musical themes that have already been used reappear but in a slightly altered form. Franck’s “invention” is derived mainly from the compositions of Franz Liszt. The attentive listener will certainly notice the improvisatory character of the third movement or the remarkably executed canonic imitation at the conclusion. It is said that the work acquired its emotional colouring from the composer’s unrequited feelings for his pupil Augusta Holmès, his junior by 20 years.
When Jérôme Ducros and the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky gave a recital of Schubert songs in 2020 at London’s famed Wigmore Hall, a critic wrote about Ducros: “Not only was he a sensitive partner for Jaroussky’s vocal lines, but an inestimable voice in his own right creating depth and meaning from the music of these pieces.” Empathy and versatility are the virtues of this French pianist and composer who makes solo appearances, is a sought-after chamber music partner, composes, and last but not least is the author of theoretical texts.
Among the artists besides Philippe Jaroussky with whom he collaborates are the cellist Jérôme Pernoo and both Capuçon brothers. His friendship with Gautier Capuçon, an artist-in-residence at this year’s Prague Spring Festival, has already gone on for 25 years.
Jérôme Ducros comes from Avignon in Provence, and he has devoted himself to music since the age of six. After graduating from the conservatoire in Orléans in the studio of Françoise Thinat, he continued his studies at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Paris under the renowned teachers Gérard Frémy and Cyril Huvé, and he also took masterclasses led by Leon Fleisher, Davitt Moroney, and Christian Zacharias.
His victory at the Umberto Micheli International Competition organised at Milan’s La Scala by Maurizio Pollini opened the door to such orchestras as the Orchestre National de Lyon, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and he has worked with conductors including James Judd, Marc Minkowski, and Christopher Hogwood.
Although he has devoted himself to composing from the beginning as well as to playing piano, Ducros did not present himself to the public as a composer until 2006, when he had his Trio for Two Cellos and Piano issued in cooperation with Gautier Capuçon and the publisher Billaudot. His profile CD as a composer titled En Aparté was released in 2013 on the Decca label, then three years later came the premiere of his Double Concerto for Piano and Cello with the Orchestre de Pau, the conductor Fayçal Karoui, and the cellist Jérôme Pernoo. In Ducros’s varied discography, there is a noteworthy Schubert CD that includes his own arrangement of the Fantasy in F minor D 940, for which he won the 2001 Diapason d’Or. Two years ago, he created made-to-order transcripts of famous works for Gautier Capuçon for the recording Emotions (Erato 2020).
Among his recordings as a player of chamber music have been the album Capriccio with the violinist Renaud Capuçon (Virgin Classics 2008), Opium with Philippe Jaroussky, and also Jaroussky’s CD Green—Mélodies françaises together with the Quatuor Ebène (Virgin Classics 2009, Erato 2015). One of his most recent recordings was of sonatas by Rachmaninoff and Myaskovsky with the cellist Bruno Philippe, which the artists realised three years ago on the Harmonia Mundi label.
The artist-in-residence for the 77th annual Prague Spring Festival will be the French cellist Gautier Capuçon. The festival public will have the opportunity to discover one of the world’s finest instrumentalists on three different programmes. In the Rudolfinum’s Dvořák Hall he will appear with the pianist Jérôme Ducros (16 May), with whom he has been collaborating successfully for 25 years, at the Prague Crossroads he will present works for solo cello that are included on his most recent album Souvenirs (17 May), and finally with the chief conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla he will perform Edward Elgar’s great Cello Concerto (18 May). “I am enormously pleased and honoured to have been invited to this year’s festival”, says the artist concerning his residency at his very first appearance at the festival. “I’m very happy and honoured to be invited for the next edition of the festival. It’s going to be fantastic and also intense to be able to experience three different programmes. I’m very impatient to be back; Prague is a city of my heart; I have great memories of it.”
Gautier Capuçon is regarded as a 21st-century ambassador of the cello, but he himself uses the title “L’Ambassadeur” to refer to his instrument, made in 1701 in the workshop of the Venetian master Matteo Goffriller. He has been playing that cello for more than 20 years: “It’s a phenomenal instrument. I have a feeling that it is a cello without limits. I am inspired every day to find new tones, new sounds. It’s endless. It’s a great companion”, he told Strings Magazine in 2018.
The cello is ideal in combination with Capuçon’s infectious musicianship and virtuosity, as is shown by his frequent guest appearances with the world’s top orchestras. Gauiter Capuçon appears with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Czech Philharmonic. He has been collaborating for 15 years with the chief conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Semyon Bychkov. With the conductor Jakub Hrůša and the Orchestre de Paris, he appeared in the autumn of 2020 at the Grande salle Pierre Boulez in Paris, where they performed Elgar’s Cello Concerto together.
The artist also plays chamber music regularly with stars from around the world including the pianists Martha Argerich and Yuja Wang. He also appears frequently with his equally famous brother, the violinist Renaud Capuçon.
He is well known to audiences at the BBC Proms and the festival in Lugano, Switzerland.
Among his special performances have been participation at celebrations of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, when he played parts of Bloch’s composition From Jewish Life, and with his brother he appeared at a concert at the Eiffel Tower on the occasion of celebrations of Bastille Day, where he played before more than 35,000 listeners. At the same venue in 2019 the cellist played an arrangement of Dvořák’s Song to the Moon from the opera Rusalk; that concert was seen on television by more than 3 million viewers.
Besides giving concerts, Capuçon is also an active teacher. Since 2014 he has been the head of the Classe d’Excellence de Violoncelle of the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. Each year, he chooses six talented young cellists to whom he devotes attention during lessons on interpretation, joint music making, and seminars with discussion.
Music critics have no doubt about this artist’s qualities either: “…Gautier Capuçon plays the cello with the control and wisdom of a much older musician. The lightness of his touch and the consistent clarity of his bow strokes are quite admirable in themselves, but when combined with an uncanny sweetness of tone in the higher registers they are breathtaking,” wrote the magazine Gramophone. In February 2018 the British website Arts Desk said about his performance: “That Capuçon is among the greatest of cellists was announced by the passionate projection of his amazing sound from the start. Capuçon is an exceptional chamber musician too, so it was hardly surprising to find him fine-tuned to his orchestral colleagues.”
Gautier Capuçon comes from Chambéry in the Savoy Alps, from a family of lovers of music and skiing. In his case, the choice of the cello was a lucky coincidence: his sister Aude played the piano, his brother Renaud the violin, and Gautier, barely five years old, got the cello. “I’ve always known that it is my main instrument. From the moment when I began to play, it nearly became a part of my body”, he said when recalling his beginnings in an interview for the Czech news server Novinky in 2015. We should add that together with his brother Renaud he has made nearly thirty recordings, and for the album Inventions (2006) he also invited his sister Aude, who continues to play the piano as a hobby.
After completing his study of cello playing in his home town Chambéry, Capuçon continued his studies at the Conservatoire Supérieur in Paris in the studio of Philippe Muller, an important representative of the French school of cello playing, then in Vienna he studied under the equally renowned cellist Heinrich Schiff. Both of his teachers had studied under the legendary French cellist André Navarra. Success at competitions soon followed—first prize at the Maurice Ravel International Music Academy (1998), victory at the André Navarra International Cello Competition (1999), the title of Talent of the Year 2001 at the annual French classical music event Victoires de la musique classique, and three years later the Burletti-Buitoni Trust Award.
Capuçon records exclusively for the Erato label (Warner Classics), and four of his recordings have earned him the prestigious ECHO Klassik award. In his discography we find, among other things, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony (hr-Sinfonieorchester) and Paavo Järvi, and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations and Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante with the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre and Valery Gergiev. He has recorded Brahms’s Double Concerto with his brother Renaud, the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, and the conductor Myung-Whun Chung, and Haydn’s concertos with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Daniel Harding. He also took part in the album Martha Argerich & Friends, Live From Lugano 2015. With the pianist Yuja Wang he made a CD recording of the Debussy and Franck cello sonatas, which will also be heard on a Prague Spring concert.
He enjoys involvement in non-traditional projects; in 2018 to make a video clip for the album Intuition he went up to the summit of the mountain Petit Combin in the Swiss Alps at an elevation of 3,356 metres, where he played Saint-Säens’s famous Swan from the suite The Carnival of the Animals at a temperature of 15 degrees below zero.
With his last album Souvenirs, issued in the autumn of 2021, the artist looks back a bit to the repertoire that accompanied the beginnings of his career, celebrating both 20 years of partnership with the recording company and his 40th birthday.