By Greg Cahill
You could say this is Vol. 1 of an autobiographical musical tale,” says Gautier Capuçon, speaking on the phone about his new album, Intuition (Warner). He’s calling from the Teatro Auditorio San Lorenzo de El Escorial in Madrid, Spain. It’s the night of the Spanish premiere of Paradise Lost, a cello concerto composed for Capuçon by Karol Beffa. But for now this passionate French cellist is busy promoting his new album, which features works that signify his past.
“It’s like if you had a big white board and on it you placed different periods of my life: my childhood, my studies in Paris, my studies in Vienna, until today. Each musical period would be illustrated with a few small pictures that for me would be linked to those periods,” he explains.
That musical tale begins with memories of his idyllic childhood, when Capuçon started playing cello at age four. “I grew up in the French Alps in Savoy. We would ski all day, all winter long, and then we would come back to my grandparents’ home,” he recalls. “It sounds a little cliché, but my grandfather would make a fire in the living room and my grandmother loved 3 Mélodies [Op. 7: No. 1, Après un rêve] by Gabriel Fauré—all my life she would listen to them. So when I think about those pieces, my memory goes directly to my childhood and my grandparents and my vacations with them. All my big family would be there—that’s my personal souvenir about it.”
Indeed, like the Fauré chamber orchestra work, each of the 15 pieces on the album is linked to a time or place or person that holds personal meaning for Capuçon. Even his original composition, “Original Rags,” a tribute to Scott Joplin, co-written with French composer, pianist, and longtime associate Jérôme Ducros, recalls former cello teacher Heinrich Schiff’s affection for Joplin and American jazz. “It connects me to him and my time in Vienna,” Capuçon says.
Intuition also includes orchestral and chamber works by Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Dvořák, Elgar, Popper, Paganini, and Rachmaninoff, among others. “All of those souvenirs are important to me,” he says. “They are pieces that I love. They have a special significance.”
His connection to Ducros, who co-wrote two other originals on the album, extends throughout the cellist’s career—Ducros is one of Capuçon’s oldest friends. “We have played together for more than 20 years,” says the 36-year-old musician. “When I play Astor Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango [included on the album] I remember so many of the tours of South America we took together when I was, oh, 16 or 17. We have a friendship onstage and off. It’s beautiful to build a relationship over the years—we met when I was 15 and there is something that is very sincere in our friendship.”
“I need the music to express myself, I need the stage. This is like a drug.”
Born in Chambery, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in southeastern France, Capuçon has led a storied life. When he’s not globe-trotting, he resides in Paris with his wife Delphine, who is also a concert cellist, and the couple’s two young daughters. The Capuçons are seen often among Paris’ glitterati on the music and fashion scenes. But his success has come with hard work. He studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Paris with Philippe Muller and Annie Cochet-Zakine, and later with Schiff in Vienna. He went on to win several prominent competitions, including the International André Navarra Prize. In 2001, while still a teen, Capuçon was named New Talent of the Year by Victoires de la Musique (the French equivalent of a Grammy). He has recorded several albums with his virtuoso violinist brother, Renaud, as well as his sister, concert pianist Aude Capuçon. His 2003 recital of Haydn cello concertos earned praise from the All Music Guide, which hailed Capuçon for his “verve, charm, lightness of touch, and . . . impeccable sense of style.”
In 2015, violinist.com declared Capuçon “one of the next cellists to watch.”
Indeed, his stage performances routinely draw rave reviews. Recently, Capuçon told Flaunt magazine that performance is the virtuoso’s elixir—his high: “I need the music to express myself, I need the stage. This is like a drug. So, I really need it. . . . Music keeps you alive—keeps you young in a way. I heard music from the time I was in the belly of my mother. . . . So, music was always part of me and part of my life . . . flowing into my veins.”
When asked about his approach to performance, Capuçon says, “The most important thing is to be as close to the music as the composer would have wanted. Most of the composers on the [Intuition] album have passed away, so I can’t just call them up, but we have a responsibility when we read and analyze the part to try and be as as close to the intent of the work as we can imagine the composer would have wanted.
“But there also is my own inspiration and intuition in the music,” he adds. “That is present when you practice, but most certainly when you are onstage. An important dimension in the music is communication and what we share because music is all about communication: what we share with other musicians and with the audience. The music is something that we all experience together. That is important, so we are responsible for telling this story to the audience and bringing them into the world of Schubert or Mozart or Dvořák. It’s hard to tell a story without words, but we should tell their story as close as we can, as close as we can imagine they would want.”
The interpretation of any given piece, he explains, is influenced by such variables as the conductor, the venue, the audience, the orchestra, or the choice of chamber partners. “It’s fascinating because you can play the same thing every day, even with the same orchestra, and if you just change the acoustics and the audience then everything is going to change,” he says. “It’s just endless because every day is different—each change will bring different inspiration. And, of course, we are not machines, so the events of your life influence the outcome of the performance. Every detail adds something new to the music.”
Capuçon hopes to continue collecting “souvenirs” of his life, perhaps recording a second volume of Intuition in the not-too-distant future. “I hope to always be lucky enough to choose what I want to do and what I want to play and with whom,” he says. “This is a great luxury. But, most importantly, I want to be able to share this with the audience. This is my life and I want to go as far as I can go with the cello and with the music and to always be curious about the music.”
The bottom line, he notes, is that the music itself—not fame or wealth or celebrity—is at the core of the experience.
“There is no secret to life. We all have to work. Whether you are young or old, we all have to be open-minded and curious about the music,” he says, when asked to share the secret of his success. “I always come back to the role of sharing and creating a dialogue with the music and the audience. We are lucky to have a language that can be shared by the entire world. Music is the language that we share. We should cherish it.”
What Gautier Capuçon Plays
For nearly 20 years Gautier Capuçon has played a 1701 cello of the Venetian school built by Matteo Goffriller. “It’s been a long relationship,” he says of the instrument, which has been loaned to him. “It’s a phenomenal instrument. I have a feeling that it is a cello without limits. I am inspired every day to find new tones, new sounds. It’s endless. It’s a great companion.”
His bow was made by the legendary French archetier François Xavier Tourte (1747–1835), the inventor of the modern bow. “It’s an incredible bow,” he says. “It has this golden, honeyed sound that we know from the Tourtes, but it’s also a very firm bow—I can play all the repertoire on it.”
He uses Larsen strings, and praises the Danish company for being innovative and sensitive to the needs of string players.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Strings magazine.