Curly of mop and intense of countenance, the freshly minted cello comer Ben Capps sauntered onto the Shalin Liu stage, brightened, adjusted his end pin, and proceeded to dig in for a reference account of Britten’s Solo Cello Suite No. 1. The composer’s tribute to Bach and Rostropovich inspired probity and fantasy in equal measures from this fearless soloist. For the next 20 minutes we closed our eyes on the $1 million view to concentrate on larger spheres. Had I been the presenter, the stage would have been draped and the house dark except for a pinspot on the artist.
Because he knew he could deliver, Capps demanded our full focus without warming us up with preliminaries. His steady control made as much of Britten’s brilliant astringencies as his woeful consolations. Capps distinctly characterized each narrative, as breath and bow felt completely conjoined. His chiseled dynamics and well-judged colorations made something almost existential of Britten’s episodic figures. His strokes at the threshold of audibility commanded us in. His representations of the fourth Canto battling for dominance with the Presto left us in staggered disbelief. His cello did not so much speak with a human voice as it took on the breath of Britten’s muse.
The usually flamboyant and voluble Russian pianist Vassily Primakov diligently partnered for the rest of the evening, beginning with Straussian juvenilia, his Cello Sonata in F Major, Op. 4. As a teenager, Richard Strauss resembled a German Arensky much more than the composer of Rosenkavalier. His lyrical surges certainly pleased the Saturday night crowd in a performance that argued for every speck of molten drama to be found. The slow movement in particular elicited theatrical despair from the well-matched partners as the cello sang baritonal songs without words and the piano agreed in chords. Surprisingly, most of Capps’s expression came from the bow, little from the lefthand. The final Allegro: vivo came in an alert and whimsical caper, conjuring something like a Freedonian national anthem seasoned with sparklers by David Popper.
One can sympathize with players whose instrument’s repertories are not as large as those of pianists and violinists. Still, did Capps really need to offer two transcriptions for the second half of this debut recital? Capps simply took Schumann’s Violin Sonata in A Minor Op. 105 down an octave and plodded through the normally more spirited work. And because the cello found itself in the same registers as the piano, Primakov had to dull his usual high polish.
The Franck Sonata may qualify as the most performed chamberwork in the violin-piano canon; it also attracts the attentions of cellists, flutists, violists, and while Wikipedia reminds us that saxophones and tubas have also essayed it, little did we know that versions existed both for violin with organ and for violin with orchestra. Capps apparently tweaked Jules Delsart’s authorized cello version by reversing some of the latter’s octave-downward transpositions and playing much in the violinist range. This liberated Primakov from his earlier enforced reticence and allowed his personality to bloom into miracles of expression. On the other hand, Capps’s insistence on playing much of the sonata on the upper reaches of the A string made his contribution sometimes spooky and vague of pitch.
Absolution was granted after the sumptuous encore, the Andante from the Rachmaninoff cello sonata. Its collaborative delicatesse and warmth of sentiment set us aglow.