In five charmed years, Renaud Capuçon has built his brainchild, the Festival de Pâques, into an annual fortnight of musical excellence that makes Aix-en-Provence a concertgoer’s paradise each Easter just as its July festival does for opera lovers. It was a gap waiting to be filled: Mediterranean France may be blest with lyric theatre, but where outside the capital can a French music-lover hear the likes of Truls Mørk, Emmanuel Pahud and András Schiff in close proximity? Or conductors like Mikhail Pletnev and François-Xavier Roth?

Martha Argerich and Renaud Capuçon © Caroline Doutre
Martha Argerich and Renaud Capuçon
© Caroline Doutre

The 2018 closing concert was supposed to be a party for the great and good as two legends, Martha Argerich and Daniel Barenboim, shared a platform with the young cellist Kian Soltani and Capuçon himself. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Earlier in the week Barenboim phoned in sick and the planned all-Debussy recital had to be rethought. This must have given everyone a headache, none more than Capuçon who, as well as running the whole shebang, had already played three earlier dates in the Festival and now, presumably, had some serious rehearsing to do.

If the violinist felt any pressure he didn’t show it. Not only did he stick to his own planned contribution, Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, he also joined Soltani and a sumptuously on-form Argerich for a rousing account of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor. After an hour or more of musical restraint (about which more anon) it was refreshing to hear something relatively big-boned, blest with muscular playing and untrammelled joy. Argerich filled the Grand Théâtre de Provence with pianistic flourishes that she tossed casually into the mix as though dressing a salad. It was especially exciting to witness this doyenne play alongside the Bregenz-born Soltani, a musician 50 years her junior, and find such youthful rhapsody in communing with him. Mendelssohn’s quicksilver Scherzo stopped the show, with good reason, and was re-played as an encore after a standing ovation that felt not only inevitable but, for once, deserved.

Renaud Capuçon and Nicholas Angelich © Caroline Doutre
Renaud Capuçon and Nicholas Angelich
© Caroline Doutre

Earlier, Barenboim’s absence may have confounded the all-Debussy plan but it left us by happy happenstance with a beautifully balanced recital. This was thanks in no small part to the heroics of last-minute recruit Nicholas Angelich, who ended up shouldering more of the concert than any of his colleagues. Among the American pianist’s exploits was another late inclusion, Schumann’s Six Études in Canon Form, Op.56, in which he and Argerich confirmed their real-life friendship through effortless musical accord. The two-piano arrangement was by Debussy, as was that of the composer’s own Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune that opened the concert and in which the pianists’ four hands re-created familiar music anew. Here, since anything is possible if sound suggests it, the faun seemed to be evoked by myriad butterflies, a variegated throng that combined in formation to paint him as a living portrait rather than a thing, however mythical, of flesh and blood. It was all down to touch and texture, but the suggestion of something fleet and intangible was pianistic magic.

Kian Soltani © Caroline Doutre
Kian Soltani
© Caroline Doutre

Angelich replaced Barenboim as Soltani’s partner in Debussy’s Cello Sonata, and together they played this stripped-back music with something approaching insouciance. It’s a deceptively demanding work for the string player in particular, yet the Austrian cellist’s account was as technically accomplished as it was musically coherent. The self-effacing Angelich also partnered Capuçon in the Violin Sonata, another of the composer’s planned sequence of six late sonatas (of which he left only three completed at his death, the Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp being the other extant work), and together they found the score’s inner grace. The French virtuoso communed with composer, pianist and instrument in a reading that was, as is typical of the man, precise and unfussy. Standing almost stock still, Capuçon seemed to fold himself into the violin and become at one with music’s underlying stillness. It was a reading of supreme calm and beauty: a precious oasis amid the excitement of a rich festival reaching its triumphant conclusion.

Nicholas Angelich and Kian Soltani © Caroline Doutre
Nicholas Angelich and Kian Soltani
© Caroline Doutre

Nothing became this concert like the leaving of it as all four musicians combined in a hair-raising performance of Fêtes from Debussy’s two-piano version of the Nocturnes. How come four? Because Capuçon and Soltani did some impromptu page-turning for their colleagues – and that was a spectacle in itself. As the festival wound down to its close, party time started five minutes early.