In pairing Gautier Capuçon and Gabriela Montero in Russian sonatas, Virgin have produced a disc of some refreshingly direct, passionate and unbuttoned music-making. Capuçon is no newcomer to the scene, but up until recently Gabriela Montero would have been a new name to many, were it not for the high reputation she has garnered for herself, especially for her gifts as an improviser.
In the Rachmaninov sonata that opens this disc, she does indeed bring a sense of freedom and improvisation to the prominent piano writing, eliciting similarly rhapsodic playing and consistently beautiful tone from Capuçon. Listen, for example, to the way they caress the lines at the modulations from 3'30 in the opening movement: the effect is enough to melt the heart.
Montero's playing can veer a little close to being mannered and is sometimes a little overpowering, but for me this is the kind of music that can take it and no attempt is made to hide the emotional power of the work (which, after all, was written around the same time as the Second Piano Concerto). Against the lush sonorities of the virtuosic piano part, Capuçon plays with his customary ardour and technical security, never risking sinking beneath Montero's handfuls of notes.
The second movement Allegro scherzando is maybe not especially light on its feet initially; here, low in his register, Capuçon really has to dig in to make his mark. But the melodic outpouring just half a minute in is once again irresistible, even if some of the counterpoint is lost, as is the sweeping second subject after two minutes. Their performance of the Andante is every bit as persuasive. Only in the Finale did I wonder whether the performers could have held back a little; the opening flourish is arresting but I missed the clarity and sense of structure that Stephen Hough and Steven Isserlis bring to this movement on Hyperion. Again, though, doubts are allayed by the sheer big-hearted exuberance of the performance, brought to a truly rousing conclusion.
Between the Rachmaninov and Prokofiev sonatas we have Capuçon and Montero's own arrangements of the Vocalise and the Eighteenth Variation from the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the latter giving the disc its name. Although we've become accustomed to the Vocalise appearing in all sorts of arrangements – there are no surprises in this arrangement and it's very well played – I did wonder about the merits of hacking a variation out of the Paganini Rhapsody, one of Rachmaninov's most expertly crafted compositions, and treating that to a basic arrangement. There's enough ardent lyricism and wonderful melodic writing in the sonata, so this three-minute snippet seems a little superfluous.
If anything, there's far more feeling of rhapsody in the Prokofiev sonata that follows. Composed for the twenty-two-year-old Rostropovich in 1949, it is a retreat from the requirements of Soviet Realism and is among the composer's most intimate and melodic works. The same virtues that make the performance of the Rachmaninov enjoyable are present here, too: Capuçon and Montero capture the delicacy of the opening and are not afraid to let rip in the occasional violence of much of the rest of the movement. Sometimes, though, Montero can dominate the texture more than is ideal. The playfulness of the Scherzo is captured with delightful humour before the expansive trio – taking us back to the world of Rachmaninov - is sung with glorious tone by Capuçon. The Finale is larger than life, both performers playing out with a total lack of inhibition. Although they produce a beautifully muted sound in the meno mosso section, the rest of it isn't exactly the most subtly shaded interpretation. However, their approach is extremely impressive technically and pays dividends as a direct reaction to some of Prokofiev's most robust melodic writing. Very well recorded, this is a highly enjoyable disc.
By Hugo Shirley