Saint-Saëns Festival – Violin Sonata No.1

Violin Sonata No.1 in A, Op.13
Violin Sonata
Die Trauergondel (La lugubre gondola), S134
Violin Sonata No.1 in D minor, Op.75

Renaud Capuçon (violin) &
Michel Dalberto (piano)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 9 May, 2004
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

On paper a useful Saint-Saëns in-context programme, around midway (in total number of concerts, if not the calendar) of Steven Isserlis’s timely Saint-Saëns Festival, yet this recital felt less than the sum of its parts. Partly that was the odd nature of Capuçon and Dalberto’s working relationship – rarely looking at each other, suggesting a cool impasse rather than a warm collaboration – and partly to do with the Wigmore acoustic.

There are those, I know, who swear blind about the beauty of the Wigmore acoustic. They will no doubt have apoplexy reading this, but my view is that it is far too resonant and that no pianist I have ever heard there has controlled their playing to actually use the acoustic to their benefit. It may sound gorgeous but obliterates what is being accompanied. Thus with Dalberto’s heavy-handed playing in the Fauré, which totally overwhelmed Capuçon’s lower register. Rhythm in the jazz-inspired Ravel was a little stiff too, not as idiomatic as one would wish in this repertoire.

The second half opened with the only non-French work, despite its original French title. Liszt was a friend of Saint-Saëns, but this work is a curio. Its description of a funeral gondola (thought to be a premonition of his son-in-law Wagner’s death) is odd enough in either of its two solo piano versions, but here sounded out-of-sorts with no sense of mystery and no soft playing at all. In fact, it was only in the encore – a return to Fauré and his rapt Berceuse – that Capuçon and Dalberto relaxed enough to attain anything like pianissimo.

By contrast, Saint-Saëns’s First Violin Sonata that ended the official programme sounded at times hectoring rather than imploring. It is a work I have quickly grown to love (and it is getting some modern currency, Midori’s been playing it, and Sarah Chang’s just recorded it), but it needs a much more persuasive advocate than Capuçon was on this occasion. In a drier acoustic it may have worked better, but in the Wigmore more is definitely less!

I feel for the poor audience member in seat U8 – any movement was accompanied by a hugely disruptive squeak! A case for not selling that particular seat, perhaps?

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