Arts & Events

Gautier Capuçon with Prague Philharmonia Plays Dvořák’s Cello Concerto

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday February 03, 2017 - 10:04:00 AM

Emmanuel Villaume, Prague Philharmonia’s Music Director and Chief Conductor, brought his orchestra to Davies Hall on Sunday evening, January 29, for a concert of Czech music by Bedřic Smetana and Antonín Dvořák. On the program were Smetana’s Vltava (The Moldau) from Má Vlast (My Country), and Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor and his Symphony No. 8 in G Major. Gautier Capuçon was the exciting young soloist in the Dvořák Cello Concerto. 

Originally from Strasbourg in France, Emmanuel Villaume is a tall, totally bald 52 year-old who conducts with an energetic, even muscular style. Villaume makes use of a baton, but for long sweeping passages he places the baton on the podium and conducts with his arms and hands supplying broad, sweeping gestures. Emmanuel Villaume made his San Francisco Symphony debut in 2000, and since then he has conducted many of the world’s leading orchestras, including the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. He also serves as Music Director of Dallas Opera. In this concert, Villaume’s rendition of Smetana’s The Moldau was robust, yet he managed to bring out all the rich scene-painting of Smetana’s musical depiction of the River Moldau as it runs through forests and meadows, then swirls through rapids as it makes its way toward Prague.  

The highlight of the concert came next with Gautier Capuçon as soloist in Dvořák’s famed Cello Concerto. Only 36 years of age, Gautier Capuçon is already a much sought after cellist who has played with most of the world’s leading orchestras. Performing on a 1701 Matteo Goffriller cello, Capuçon offers a rich, robust tone, burnished in the low register and sweet in the upper register. His fingering in the rapid passages was breathtaking. Dvořák’s Cello Concerto begins with a long orchestral prelude that presents the movement’s two main themes. The first is heard in the clarinets, soon joined by the bassoons. The second is heard in a solo horn against a string background. When the solo cello finally makes its entrance, it is with a dramatic gesture, robust and portentous. From that moment on, Capuçon simply took over this magnificent work, developing the two themes of this opening movement in broad, muscular fashion. By contrast, in the second movement, a soft Adagio, Capuçon emphasized the poignant, almost bittersweet mood of this beautiful yet somber movement.  

There is a touching anecdote, recounted in the program notes, that involves Dvořák’s sister-in-law, Josefina Cermáková, for whom he fell madly in love when she was a sixteen year-old coming to Dvořák for piano lessons. The song she loved most to play was one of Dvořák’s own. However, Josefina did not return Dvořák’s love, and he later married her younger sister. While in New York thirty years later in 1895, Dvořák and his wife learned that Josefina had died. Much moved, Dvořák incorporated the song Josefina loved to play in the middle of the Cello Concerto’s Adagio, making it stand out as a kind of coda.  

The third and final movement begins in the cellos, and basses. On the whole, the orchestra opens with march-like tune that is aggressively assertive and extroverted, while the solo cello alternates between reinforcing the assertive manor of the orchestra and, on the other hand, slowing everything down, softening the tone, and embarking on a more introspective mood, one of meditation rather than assertion. This pattern of alternating extroverted and introverted passages continues throughout the final movement, with reminiscences of the first and second movements, until the solo cello plays an ethereal pianissimo that simply dies away, to be followed by the orchestra which brings the work to a close that could be heard as stormy, celebratory, or perhaps, most fittingly in this ultra-Romantic work, both. Tumultuous applause greeted the conclusion of this great work; and as they took their bows, Capuçon and Villaume seemed genuinely moved by the audience’s warm appreciation of this excellent performance. With Rostropovich having passed away, and Yo-Yo Ma retreating ever further into crossover music, Gautier Capuçon seems poised to be the next great classical cellist of our time. 

After intermission Prague Philharmonia returned to perform Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 in G Major. There is a distinctly pastoral air about this symphony, and it is replete with Dvořák’s beloved birdcalls, heard first in a lovely flute solo, then, in the second movement, heard in the clarinets. The Adagio has a rustic tone even before its bucolic mood is interrupted by what sounds like a village band playing an arrangement of something Wagner might have written, full of brassy horns. Twice this village band breaks in on the gentle music of the Adagio, and one might mistake this bizarre alternation for something Mahler liked to do.  

The third movement offers a Slavonic waltz disguised as a scherzo, which, by the movement’s end, has become a Czech folk dance. This movement’s minor mode emphasizes the wistfulness of these reminiscences of Czech country life. The fourth and final movement opens with a trumpet fanfare, then shifts to the low register instruments of violas, cellos and basses. Soon a clarinet launches yet another birdcall. Throughout this finale, one is conscious of Dvořák’s love of the Bohemian countryside, its rustling trees, its luscious birdsong. At last, a recurring theme from the opening movement is given robust treatment in a rousing conclusion.