Capuçon, a French violinist in his middle 20s, plays a Stradivarius that once belonged to Fritz Kreisler. Although he is much too young to have studied with Kreisler (!), he has studied with Isaac Stern and Shlomo Mintz, and he was an early star at the Paris Conservatoire. His affinity for chamber music has paired him with names such as Hélène Grimaud, Yefim Bronfman, and Stephen Kovacevich. Harding, a British conductor not yet into his 30s, was named Musical Director of Bremen's German Chamber Philharmonic in 1999. Since then, he has made a handful of controversial recordings with this ensemble and with others. These include a lickety-split Don Giovanni (live from Aix), a disc of Beethoven overtures, and Brahms' Third and Fourth Symphonies.
Particularly because of Harding's reputation as an individualist, I was surprised to hear of him conducting a fairly standard disc of showpieces for violin and orchestra. However, he and Capuçon have taken a thoughtful approach to the repertoire. That's not to say that Capuçon lacks virtuosity – he has plenty of it. It's just that he does not rely on virtuosity alone to make an effective presentation of this music. He and Harding don't act as if it "plays itself." In Tzigane, a supreme test for any violinist, Capuçon plays suavely, even sexily, eschewing the elements of parody that violinists such as Perlman have brought out in this work. Even the evergreen "Méditation" from Thaïs is given a new lease on life through Capuçon's avoidance of sentimentality. The disc's sole failure is Saint-Saëns' Danse macabre, and that is Harding's fault: he adopts much too fast a tempo.
The disc also has a curiosity (at least for me), and that's Milhaud's "cinéma-fantaisie" Le boeuf sur le toit played as a concertante work for violin and orchestra. (This work is almost always heard in its orchestral version.) Milhaud prepared this arrangement for violinist René Bénédetti, and it expands the humor already present in the music with all kinds of bad taste and malfeasance for the soloist. Having said that, I prefer the original version, but that is what I am most familiar with. (There's also an arrangement for violin and piano.)
Every collector has his or her favorite violinist in this repertoire, and Capuçon doesn't eclipse any of them. At the same time, he is more than satisfying throughout, and this disc gives us an attractive glimpse of a violinist we'll probably be hearing a lot more from in the decades to come.
Copyright © 2002, Raymond Tuttle