Cellist Gautier Capuçon and pianist Frank Braley are artists I have previously admired in many chamber ensemble concerts, most recently last year at the Wigmore Hall in a concert celebrating Dutilleux’s centenary. I was aware that they often perform and record together as a duo too, but their recital at Kings Place – part of the hall’s year-long Cello Wrapped series – was the first time for me to hear them as a pair, in a substantial and imaginative programme that spanned the cello repertoire from Beethoven to Britten, via Fauré, Debussy and Martinů. Two things were apparent from the outset: that Capuçon produces a bright and highly-charged tone from his 1701 Goffriller instrument, and that Kings Place Hall One is an acoustically perfect venue for a cello recital, which may be a reason why the Cello Unwrapped series has been so successful in its first months.

Gautier Capuçon © Gregory Batardon
Gautier Capuçon
© Gregory Batardon

Outwardly, Capuçon and Braley are an attractive duo that performs with plenty of French flamboyance and flair – after all, they both have impressive careers as soloists too. Yet, underneath the showiness, they are in fact earnest and experienced chamber musicians (there is a lot of eye contact and body language between them), responding with ease to each other and digging deep especially in the Debussy and Britten sonatas in the second half of the programme.

The programme was neatly devised: both halves consisted of two main works with a short Fauré piece sandwiched between. In the first half they paired two classically conceived pieces, Martinů’s seldom-performed Variations on a Slovak Theme, composed in 1959 (the year of his death) and Beethoven’s youthful First Cello Sonata from 1796, with Fauré’s moving Elégie in the middle. I was unfamiliar with this Martinů work but it is an attractive opener with a lot of lively rhythmic interplay between the cello and piano contrasting with chorale-like reflective passages in the piano. In Fauré’s Elegie, Capuçon’s beautifully sustained tone amply filled the hall while Braley accompanied with his typical nonchalance, yet with keen feeling for the harmony and build-up of the drama.

I was less convinced with their interpretation of the Beethoven sonata. Technically it was flawless and had genuine passion, but it felt too smooth and too romantic for an early Beethoven work that still has clear echoes of Haydn. A little more detailed phrasing and articulation from Capuçon would have been welcome. Braley negotiated the quicksilver piano passages with casual ease – perhaps too much ease – and although it may partly have been the hall’s rich acoustics, it sounded a little undelineated. Still, I enjoyed the spontaneity they showed in the extended coda section of the first movement and the second movement was appropriately light-hearted and vivacious.

When they came on in the second half, they raised the intensity level by several notches with a brilliant and mercurial rendition of the Debussy sonata. No doubt this is repertoire they have performed together frequently and know inside out (they have also recorded it together), and because they trust each other, they were able to take expressive risks knowing that the other will respond. Capuçon’s playing had plenty of colour, dynamic contrast and technical skill, especially his rapid but nuanced pizzicato playing in the Sérénade movement (a technique further explored by Britten in his sonata). Braley responded to Capuçon’s challenges with his intuitive and incisive playing.

Fauré’s Après un rêve was like a sorbet in a five-course dinner, after which they plunged into Britten’s Cello Sonata famously written for Mstislav Rostropovich – whose recording must still be a benchmark for many. The two Frenchmen’s reading of the work was full of flair and raw emotion – which may not have been quite to Britten’s taste – but a powerful performance nonetheless. After a lyrical and intimate Dialogo, the Scherzo-Pizzicato was played with mesmerising virtuosity. The central movement Elegia was dark, with Braley bringing out gravitas in the low register. Together they dug even deeper in the Marcia with its grotesque harmonies, while the final Moto perpetuo was rounded off with flamboyance from both players, especially in the springing saltando passage by Capuçon.

After a huge and long ovation, the pair gave us a French encore – the Méditation from Massenet’s opera Thaïs. Usually my heart sinks at this overplayed encore piece, but here it was played with sincerity, and Capuçon’s rich and warm sonority, supported by Braley’s tender chordal accompaniment, filled the hall as well as our hearts.