Being an artist-in-residence gives a musician a rare opportunity to showcase the breadth of their work. In the case of French cellist Gautier Capuçon, the featured performer at Prague Spring this year, it also offered a chance to share the spotlight with young talent that he is nurturing offstage.

Gautier Capuçon and Jérôme Ducros
© Pražské jaro | Petra Hajská

The centerpiece of Capuçon’s triptych at the festival was an evening of sonatas with pianist Jérôme Ducros. Playing together for nearly 25 years, the two have forged a telepathic connection – or at least that’s how it seems in their instinctive timing and brilliant complement of sounds. Music breathes when they perform, rising in fervor and dropping into delicate filigrees. Distinctive phrasing adds an element of spontaneity, and the clarity in their collaboration is remarkable. Two separate voices never fit together so seamlessly.

Debussy’s short Cello Sonata in D minor set a mood of quiet intensity, with Capuçon crafting fine details against Ducros’ thoughtful atmospherics and sharp outbursts at the keyboard. Even in lighter moments the duo tended to render the music in dark, somber tones, lending this piece satisfying gravitas. And no matter what he’s playing, Capuçon likes to push the technical limits of his instrument, dispatching the challenging sul ponticello and flautando passages in this modern-flavored work with flair.

Brahms’ Cello Sonata no. 1 in E minor was written for co-equal voices, which in this performance allowed for some brilliant individual highlights between the flowing melodies and expansive harmonics. Ducros evoked some trembling figures in the first movement and drove the second movement with a colorful, rippling background. Capuçon reached deep, working every note for dramatic and emotional impact. Their blazing opening in the final movement was like a fierce attack that softened and danced on tiptoes before culminating in a rapid-fire yet tightly controlled coda.

Gautier Capuçon and Jérôme Ducros
© Pražské jaro | Petra Hajská

Franck’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in A major, originally written for violin, got loving treatment, with Ducros echoing sweet, elegant lines from Capuçon. Even when they start soft – notes that seemed to float in the air in the second movement, the rhyming lyricism of the fourth – Ducros and Capuçon inevitably worked up to a passionate pitch, which was true for most of this piece. The cascading finale was notably brighter, capping the program with a touch of joy and celebration.

That is, the planned program. Capuçon opened the second half by walking onto the stage with a microphone to tell the audience about La Fondation Gautier Capuçon, a foundation he established earlier this year to support emerging artists. He then introduced Kim Bernard, a French piano prodigy and the first laureate of the foundation. Bernard was given generous time to play a pair of Debussy pieces, showing a nice touch and a mature sound.

He was brought back after the Franck sonata for two light-hearted encores with Capuçon and Ducros. Saint-Saëns’ The Swan featured Capuçon on cello and Ducros and Bernard playing four-handed piano. After another bench was added, Capuçon joined them for a six-handed version of Rachmaninov’s Romance. It was a well-received bit of showmanship and the kind of exposure that most young artists can only dream about.

Kim Bernard, Gautier Capuçon and Jérôme Ducros
© Pražské jaro | Petra Hajská

In his solo recital the previous night, Capuçon offered fine support for another student. After a complex program of Bach, Dutilleux and Kodály (all three pieces require different tunings), he played Ambre Cello, a piece by Javier Martinez-Campos, a young composer and cellist with the National Orchestra and Choir of Spain. Also a technically demanding work, it fit neatly into a program of what Capuçon called “exploring the cello,” treating the audience to its full range of sonic possibilities.

Many artists pay lip service to supporting young talent, but Capuçon lives that philosophy, and if Bernard and Martinez-Campos are accurate indications of the caliber of talent he’s helping develop, the classical music world is already better for it. 

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