Though he’s just 35, French cellist Gautier Capuçon has performed on nearly three dozen chamber, orchestral and solo recordings. His latest, released in October, is a special milestone, because he joins French pianist Frank Braley in bedrock works for the combination: Ludwig van Beethoven’s five sonatas and three sets of variations.
Capuçon spent more than 20 years getting to know these works during practice sessions and performances before the two musicians recorded them in March. He presented works from the album during a short tour in October with Braley, and the two hit the road again Nov. 17 for a European recital tour. The learning never stops, and his approach to the music is always evolving. “Of course, you are still the same artist, but every day, there is something different, you understand things differently,” he said. “It’s really a great adventure and very intimate to share that with a close friend.”
When Capuçon returns Dec. 15-18 to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he will be focused not on Beethoven, but on Camille Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 33, a work esteemed by such notable composers as Sergei Rachmaninov and Dmitri Shostakovich. While hardly unknown, it is not heard as frequently as the cello concertos of, say, Antonín Dvořák or Edward Elgar. Written in 1872 when the composer was 37 years old, the work is structured in one continuous movement with three sections.
Capuçon calls it a “fantastic piece” that is both virtuosic and Romantic. It shares certain similarities with Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto, which was written 22 years earlier and is also performed without a break among its three sections. “You have a slow movement, which is actually like the Schumann Concerto, which is very intimate and elegant,” he said. “It is a piece that is not played as often as it should be, so I’m very happy to come to America with this French Saint-Saëns concerto that I really love.”
Capuçon performs on a 1701 cello by Matteo Gofriller, who was active in Venice in 1685-1735. This December marks his 17th anniversary with the on-loan instrument, a relationship he describes as “long love story.” But it hasn’t always been an easy one. While he describes the venerable cello as an “incredible” instrument, it also presents challenges. “But when you know it, there is no limit on the colors you can find,” he said. “Even after 17 years of playing, it’s always a cello that is demanding. You always need to work on it. It’s unbelievable.”
Growing up in Chambéry, a town in southeastern France, he began playing the cello around the age of 4. He has no memory of it now, but his parents first presented him with a violin, but he didn’t like it. Because his sister played the piano and his older brother played the violin, his parents then tried the cello, and Capuçon took an immediate liking to it. “I still remember the sensation of having this first cello in between the legs,” he said. “Even before the music, I loved the instrument. I thought it was fun. I loved the position, that the cello was almost making one with my body.”
He began cello lessons at the Ecole Nationale de Musique de Chambéry before switching to the Conseratoire Supérieur de Paris. After graduating in 1997, he studied for three years with Philippe Muller at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, winning first prizes in cello and chamber music. He then rounded out his training with noted Austrian cellist Heinrich Schiff in Vienna.
In 1997-98, he was a cellist in the European Community Youth Orchestra (now the European Union Youth Orchestra) and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester, where he played under such famed conductors as Claudio Abbado, Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink. “Honestly, it was one of the best experiences I had when I was young,” Capuçon said. “When you’re 15 or 16, being part of a huge orchestra playing at the professional level with young musicians coming from all around the world, with different languages and different cultures, you learn so much about music. You learn so much about being in a community and playing together.”
In a related vein, Capuçon oversees an educational program — a kind of finishing school — for top cellists from around the world who have finished their formal training and are on the cusp of professional careers. Called the Classe d’Excellence de Violoncelle, it takes place annually at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, an art museum in Paris that opened in a showy, Frank Gehry-designed building in October 2014. The foundation asked the cellist for ideas of how to put its auditorium to good use, and it seized upon his proposal for this initiative, which consists of six sessions a year, each lasting three to four days. Capuçon and the half-dozen or so participants, who are typically 18-23 years of age, spend eight to 10 hours together a day. In addition to coachings, rehearsals and concerts, many of which are open to the public, the young cellists meet with experts, including physical therapists, promoters and managers who offer a range of career and health advice. “There are so many questions to ask about this life, and sometimes they are nervous about one subject or another, and they would love to get some answers,” he said. “I’m trying to help them as much as I can.”
Capuçon is part of a musical family that includes his sister, Aude, whom he describes as an amateur pianist, and his brother Renaud, a violin soloist who appeared with the CSO in October 2015. The three were featured on “Inventions,” released in 2006. In a New York Times review, music critic Vivien Schweitzer observed: “The Capuçon siblings — led by Renaud, 30, a violinist, and Gautier, 25, a cellist — are a relatively recent but noteworthy addition to the current Who’s Who in musical families. The brothers demonstrate their rich, powerful tone, fine ensemble playing and wide range of repertory on their new disc.”
From about age 16 to 30, Capuçon performed frequently with his brother, sometimes as many as 30-50 concerts a year. But they have since pared back their collaborations, now appearing together only two or three times annually. Part of the reason has been Capuçon’s increased emphasis on solo appearances with orchestras and decreased involvement with chamber music. “We’ve done great things together,” he said. “But like in any relationship, balance is something which is not always easy to find.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.