After building an extensive discography for over two decades with Erato and Warner Classics, French violinist Renaud Capuçon (b. 1976) entered into a new partnership with Deutsche Grammophon in 2022. This will see recordings (audio and visual) produced by a special company co-owned by Capuçon and released by Deutsche Grammophon, an arrangement that gives Capuçon more than the usual degree of creative and artistic control as he works with young performers and composers on a quest to develop “new recordings of landmark violin repertoire”.
The first project is a comprehensive celebration of Mozart’s music, beginning with this 4CD set of violin sonatas. Mozart completed 32 sonatas for piano and violin, with another four not finished and/or existing in fragments. The first 16 of these sonatas (K6 to 21) were written between the ages of six and ten (let that sink in for a minute) and it appears that these may be recorded at a later date to make a complete set.
This current release comprises the latter half of Mozart’s output: the ‘mature’ Sonatas Nos. 17–28, 32–3, 35–6, and two sets of variations (K359 and 360). Capuçon has teamed up here with American pianist, composer and organist Kit Armstrong (b. 1992), whose recent recordings of works by John Bull and William Byrd have generated much excitement and critical acclaim.
Armstrong and Capuçon performed these sonatas the first time they played together at the Salzburg Mozartwoche in 2016, when Armstrong stood in for Menahem Pressler, who had been scheduled to perform with Capuçon. “After we had played these sonatas in Salzburg, we knew at once that we wanted to record them,” says Capuçon, adding that with Armstrong, “everything works in a completely uncomplicated and natural way.”
This is absolutely evident for the listener, as Capuçon and Armstrong sound joined at the hip in these works, which were not composed as violin sonatas in the manner that we now understand them (violin showpiece with piano accompaniment). Rather, the opposite was the case; piano led and violin followed.
Fascinatingly, this relationship begins to change in the later works, which have been described by German musicologist Ludwig Finscher as “the charter for a new genre.” With the instruments trading places and bouncing phrases back and forth as Mozart constantly experiments, Armstrong seems often on the verge of (quite gloriously) stealing the show with his lightning technique; nimble, precise, formidable. Capuçon’s tone is spaciously sinewy, expertly balancing airy delicacy with lyrical surges of intensity in a constant dance with Armstrong.
There are many highlights in the almost five hours of material here, but particular standouts include the sparkling Sonata K304 in E minor; K379 in G with its perfect phrases dipping darkly into the Romantic future; and the very lovely Andante of the K380 E-flat sonata. The balance between instruments is fine and nuanced, with sound that is expansive and warm but not so much that crispness is lost. This complements the performances of two virtuosi whose emphasis is on surrendering themselves to be contemporary conduits for Mozart’s music.
“When I hear Renaud render Mozart’s lyrical flights with all the sumptuousness and refinement that modern violin playing can have,” says Armstrong, “I am convinced: it is beautiful, and that is what matters.”
Works: Violin Sonatas
Performers: Renaud Capuçon v, Kit Armstrong p
Label: DG 4864463 (4CD)