The Capucon Quartet are rock stars. That is all that needs to be said.
The Capucon Quartet’s concert was another must-attend for me (in part because of the chance to see Verbier Academy alumni and Thoroughly Good interviewee from a few years back, cellist Edgar Moreau) , making this Monte Carlo visit the trip where I binged on four Beethoven lates in 24 hours. Not for the faint-hearted by any means.
The second of the two concerts was in the finer acoustic and even in amongst the ostentatious chocolate box interior of the Opera Garnier in Monte Carlo. Two blistering performances of Beethoven string quartets (12 and 16), prefaced by a compelling performance of Kagel’s storytelling for accordion Pandorasbox from 1960 brilliantly performed by Jean-Etienne Sotty (below). Never before has a performer been so evidently commanded by the instrument he is playing. A fascinating muse on the role of the performer.
The Capucon Quartet began with Opus. 132, playing with poise and committment right from the off. They are, if you need an analogy, a rock star presence on the platform who perform even when they’re not playing a note. That makes attention all the easier, preparing us the listener for every note, delighting us when they sound.
Capucon pounds his heel on the stage – the first of two mannerisms I’ve seen here in Monte Carlo which should technically be a distraction, but does instead add to the overall effect. He exudes an alluring and intense kind of heat when he plays which only adds to the effect.
Cellist Moreau in comparison – youthful complexion with a strong nose – gives off a studious air about him as though he’s not yet given himself permission to live the experience he’s having. Guillaume Chilemme (second violin) and Adrien La Marca (viola) maintain a solid but comparatively low key presence, supporting their colleagues but not competing with them. I’m not clear on whether that’s as it should be, but the implicit deference on stage was striking nonetheless.
The second movement of Opus 132 – a profound musical expression – was made more enthralling as all found maintained a sense of stillness throughout. Long sweeping statements seemed to continue long after the musical phrases had come to an end. Here there was a sense of completeness about the experience as though the music was being conjured up from amongst them and existing around and about them.
The energy was broken after a false start to Opus 135 when one of Moreau’s strings either broke or slipped at the beginning of the performance. This understandably demanded all the performers left the stage whilst the necessary corrections were made. This didn’t impact their performance necessarily, though there was a sense that this interruption underlined by the supportive warm applause when Moreau had to call a halt to proceedings had cut the energy short.
Such piffling detail didn’t put a dent in proceedings especially. If anything it illustrated the necessary criteria for Beethoven string quartets. There needs to be focus, uncompromising commitment and limitless energy. As you’d expect the Capucon Quartet had this in spades throughout. But what will remain memorable about this event was Opus 132. An undoubted highlight of my musical year.
A mixed experience. Strong playing from the strings, a beautifully rich tone from Capucon, but some difficulties with balance which didn’t really get corrected until the last work in the programme.
Capucon plays with a warm tone throughout this mercurial material. Sometimes the orchestra swamps in the fortissimos. The generous acoustic in the Grimaldi Forum highlights some moments of great precision in the opening movement – one particular chord with triangle was exquisite.
But the balance between soloist and orchestra wasn’t consistent and didn’t favour the solo line necessarily. It did settle down towards the end of the first movement.
The second movement in comparison is musically difficult to follow. The material creeps along, the underlying narrative structure of the movement difficult to decipher. It felt like what seemed like an unedifying work on a first listen hadn’t necessarily been given due attention to underline its central ideas.
The battle between sections of the orchestra seemed to continue Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. It’s a well-known work brimming with recognisable tunes and heartwarming evocations of a bygone era most of us can only perceive. It showed the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s current calling card: a strong vibrant string section that works hard to create a wide variety of compelling colours and textures.
Consistently throughout this performance and in Bartok Violin No. 2 the strings delivered in the generous acoustic, but this was at the expense of the woodwind section who seemed to struggle cutting across the band.
This I took to be down to the conductor Péter Eötvös who (after a similar experience watching him conduct the Philharmonia recently) I remain unconvinced about in terms of direction. It’s difficult from an audience members point of view to know 100% what a conductor provides an orchestra. We the audience don’t get the full picture – only the back or the side.
There were moments when it felt like details like dynamic contrast, balance between sections and detailed attention to the ends of phrases had been overlooked.
This was the case during the fourth movement when the counter-melody in the pizzicato celli almost seemed to go overlooked. Later in the third movement, declamatory statements didn’t appear quite as doom-laden as I’ve heard in other performances. The beginning of phrases seemed to lack the attack I’ve come to expect.Some of the drama was lost.
It made me wonder whether Eostvos‘ workman like conducting style meant the finer points were lost a little. Similarly, some of the watery textures in Bartok’s orchestration didn’t come across quite so fluidly at the beginning of the third movement.
Credit where its undoubtedly due though: the bassoons in the second movement were something to behold. And whilst the dynamic range of the string section wasn’t as marked as I personally would have liked, there was simply no doubt that the section delivered, especially on the G-string.
Bartok’s second violin concerto is immediately more interesting in terms of material. The first movement is more cohesive – Bartok’s juxtaposition of material combined with seamless transitions makes the argument easier to follow and the end product more satisfying to listen to.
The balance between the orchestra and soloist was strikingly different too.
Capucon is captivating. He has an air of the Candyman from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory about him. Proud, determined, and sensitive with a seductively infectious enthusiasm. Another mannerism I noted during this performance – the stiff leg kick thing he does from time to time is weirdly satisfying to see. He was doing a similar thing during the encore when sat towards the back of the firsts , momentarily reposition ing himself in the chair when he’s tense with unspent energy.
The second movement confirms Bartok’s material in this work makes this concerto far more compelling. Exquisite playing. Capucon’s tone rung out again, every note ‘bang on’ every time, positioned right in the centre. Here he created and sustained the magic right up until the end of the second movement. The silent transition to the final movement was a beautiful piece of ballet in itself.
The Signum Quartet provide take a lyrical approach to Beethoven, prefaced with a compelling performance of Van Dijk’s epic depiction of rage.
Pairing van Dijk’s (Rage) Rage Against The for string quartet with two late Beethoven String Quartet provided an interesting comparison. van Dijk’s creation gave a sense of fractured voices gradually asserting themselves over time and breaking out into a full-blown community set-to, multiple voices articulated with devastating effect by only four instruments playing with a variety of effects. This work undoubtedly suited the Signum Quartet the best, in particular cellist Thomas Schwitz whose dedication to the multiple demands van Dijk’s score made saw the instrumentalist venture onto stage with bows, the hair of one was in shreds by the end of the performance.
The Signum Quartet’s stamina is clearly considerable. Soon after, the first of two late Beethoven quartets – the fifteenth. For those not in the know already, the fifteenth was written before the thirteenth, but the fifteenth was published after the thirteenth.
This felt like a broadly romantic approach to what I’ve always regarded as a tough, sinewy collection of works. The Signum’s sweet tone – warm cello, soft rounded viola, and bright-sounding violins – sometimes gave Beethoven’s very physical, complex and sometimes aggressive writing a delicacy I hadn’t heard before.
Here it felt like the quartet was in a lot of places getting accustomed to the acoustic of the Musee Oceanapgraphic. Detail in the pianissimos, especially staccatos was lost, meaning phrases appeared to start with a sense of confidence but later fizzle out. This inadvertently created a mild sense of frustration as though we were hearing the opening clause of a statement, but the concluding phrase was lost to mumbling and incoherence.
At least that was how proceedings started. Come the first appearance of the second subject in the third movement (sorry for the detail here), there a greater sense of precision, marked by my increasing awareness of the gaps in between the notes. This created a sense of electricity which in turn imbued the return of the opening subject of the movement with strength, warmth and determination. From then on, each subsequent return of each melodic idea came with a greater sense of clarity, and increased attentiveness.
If live performance is like a sporting match – this was a great example. My assumptions were challenged. Something changed. My attention was grabbed. In this way the fourth movement recitative built on the third movement gains.
Post-interval – a gratifyingly leisurely affair at the Monte Carlo Festival – the thirteenth quartet consolidated the transformation the Signum Quartet had secured. The first movement began with greater self-assurance and demonstrated how the group had become better accustomed to the acoustic. There was more attack in the fortissimo sections. A far more muscular sound: the lyricism had been put to one side for a while. And whilst this was maintained for a while, there was for me an overall lack of distinction between the various voices in the score which made the schizophrenic nature of Beethoven’s material meld more than I would have liked. But the fourth movement allegro exposed parts of the first violin part I’d never heard before – a fascinating set of syncopations which made me feel momentarially rebellious.
I last heard these quartets live in the Eglise at Verbier a couple of years back. My memory of that was they were epic performances of a phenomenally demanding work that those performances wanted us the audience to participate in. The Signums may well have been unfairly pitched against that personal memory.
Convention dictates that the cars won’t stop at a pedestrian crossing unless you’ve stepped into the road first. I spent the first 24 hours of my visit standing at the side of the road shaking my fist at every car that sped past me without stopping. Actually committing to this counter-intuitive process is a terrifying undertaking, but it does work. I hesitated every time. Drivers are more concerned about being stopped by the police in Monaco, hence they do actually stop. Things are a little more treacherous in France I understand.
What we think of as Monte-Carlo is actually not Monte-Carlo
The famous view of the bay with all the boats bobbing up and down isn’t Monte Carlo at all. It’s Port Hercule in the district of La Condamine.
Monaco is the principality (it takes as long to walk from one side to the other as it does for me to walk from London Bridge to Charing Cross), La
Condomine is one district; Monte-Carlo is next door; Grimaldi is next door to that.
The heart of Monte-Carlo is the Casino and the Opera House (see below) – both constructions sought to save the principality from bankruptcy and named after the monarch who had it built – Prince Charles III.
They build big, they build dense and in some places it all feels a little soulless, especially in those places where the streets have been cleaned, refreshed or refurbished Disney-style. The architecture still retains a strange charm about it – a nostalgic feel emanating from the smoked glass and aluminium frames.
The experience is similar to the 1950s modernity experienced on the Southbank, only everything is ridiculously packed-in. It’s living arrangements best viewed from afar on a sunny day. The explosion of high rises and hotels was the work of Prince Rainier III in the 60s. It’s what I remember Monaco for when I visited there as a kid.
La Condamine’s harbour – Port Hercule – as we know it today is the work of Prince Albert
Albert I reigned 1899-1922. He introduced the Monte Carlo
rally to the principality. He also built up the harbour into (basically) what we see today.
Oh he was mad about Oceanography, hence the ridiculously-sized and strangely disappointing museum built into the side of a rock (see above) the opposite side to Monte Carlo.
Princess Grace is their history
There are historic-looking buildings, but there’s no real sense of history. All around the place signs depict Princess Grace (the American actress Grace Kelly who married Prince Rainier III in 1956 and later established the Festival Printemps des Arts de Monte Carlo) at various stages in her Monaco life. There’s something a little sad about seeing so many images dedicated to a woman whose prominence is in part built on the tragic end of her life.
The Garnier Opera House is the work of Prince Charles
The people who own the Opera House (part of the casino) aren’t terribly keen on people taking pictures and then publishing them (there was lots of talk about copyright issues and permissions and what have you). So,
instead I’ve nicked this picture from someone else’s website just to give you a flavour of what
its like inside.
It is ridiculously opulent with gilt edges, a stupendously high ceiling and blissfully comfortable velvet-covered seats. The curtains cost the price of two
Ferarris apparently although I’m not entirely sure what the Ferraris actually were or whether they were second hand or not. I sat in the Prime Minister’s own box overlooking the stage.
You’ll need the current monarch’s approval to sit in the royal box, FYI.
Buy your booze in the Carrefour City, not in the hotel
It's worth bearing in mind that I am quite tight when it comes to money. If I find myself using my bank card for
anymore than £25 in a day, I start getting a bit twitchy, shouting angrily at young people across the street for no apparent reason. This was compounded because of the price of booze in Monte-Carlo.
It's not like it was a massive surprise. People had warned me. 10 Euros for a pint of beer (I kid you not) and around 7 Euro for a small glass of wine. Conversely, I found a variety of alcoholic beverages in the local supermarket for a good deal less money than I was paying by
glass in the hotel a few steps away. Le Carrefour is selling a half-bottle of red for an astonishing 1 Euro 75 – it went down a treat. Side note: the Rainier III Auditorium doesn’t allow drinks in the auditorium by the way. I’ve tried.
Pro-tip: Eat at the Monaco Brasserie in Port Hercule for a good value meal. Don't do what I did though and leave your bank card in your hotel room. The staff were very understanding, but those steps back up to the train station and back to the hotel are very steep.
Musically speaking, we don't realise how lucky we are in the UK
There is a sense in Monaco – from the architecture and the way engineering has made building work possible – that money buys everything. Monaco isn’t ostentatious necessarily, but it’s scale hints at a strategy of ‘we can do this so we must’. Sometimes I wondered whether that was reflected in the concert experience too. It was refreshing to see concerts with a variety of different artists playing one work – that meant we had a greater range. But the flipside was that we missed electrifying performances because the artists weren’t on-stage for long enough.
There is also an important point to be made about good front-of-house work. Staff are there to welcome,
direct, and guide customers to their seats. In most venues that worked – especially the more eclectic spaces. But in one venue there was room for improvement. That impacts on a concert-goers experience in quite a profound way, as much as the music on stage. there was room for improvement. That impacts on a concert-goers experience in quite a profound way, as much as the music on stage.
New connections with Berio and Ives
Just as Verbier introduced me to an intense chamber music listening experience, and a trip to Budapest helped me (finally) get Wagner, so Monte-Carlo has introduced me to the music of Berio and Ives. I knew little about Ives before I visited, now I find the man strangely fascinating. Festivals remain a great way to get an intense fix of something new.
The last concert in my Monte-Carlo was disappointing. The Berio flew, but the premiere dawdled, and an over-sized string section struggled to bring Ives's first symphony alive.
Flick through the rest of the Monte-Carlo Spring Festival brochure and you’ll see Berio’s Sequenzas peppered throughout the remaining concerts. That in itself is a daring move from a ticket sales point of view, but one that does pay dividends.
Like the harp
sequenza the night before, Berio’s fascination with sound and texture, makes for a compelling listen. If I’d found the narrative difficult to discern in number 6 on Thursday night, it was ever-present and difficult to shake in the performance of number 2.
Viola player Ieva Sruogyté confronted, grappled, and tamed an aggressive work. This was storytelling with grit, power, and determination. With this work, in particular, I think there’s a need that the performance continues for a few seconds after the final note is played.
Composer Erica Montalbetti's Eclair physionomique, fantaisiesymphonique après Paul Klee painted an image of the sea (that’s how I heard it), an ever-shifting mass combining multiple textures moving at different rates and with a different purpose. It began with promise but was in need of a bit of an edit, running rather longer than attention could muster. Convincing ensemble work was initially compromised by a dominant percussion section.
Charles Ives first symphony was a student work whilst the composer was at Yale University in the late 1890s, making use of compositional styles from late European romantic composers, like Tchaikovsky, Dvorak and Beethoven. The effect on first-listen is not unlike that strangely unsettling experience of hearing the imitative music utilised in the Simpsons in a bid to avoid a stinging copyright bill. Ives’s thorough compositional methodology making dating a work difficult, but what comes through loud and clear in the first symphony is his thoroughness, the tidiness of the church hymn music tradition which influenced him through his Yale tutor Horatio Parker.
Sure, I know, it appears like I’ve just read that stuff in a book and regurgitated it. You’re partially right. But only because there’s something odd about Ives’ music – the range, the imitation, the differing compositional styles – which makes me curious. That in itself helps stop me from wholly dismissing his music.
important, because the performance of the symphony was disappointing. The imbalanced string section of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo struggled to maintain a satisfying ensemble – some of the first violin cues could be heard to start a split second apart at the front of the section and at the back. Some intonation issues in the cellos and basses made for disappointing solos. The third movement
in particular saw first violins and solo cor anglais battle to maintain togetherness. This may well have been down to the tiredness of the players (I suspect the premiere before might have knocked the stuffing out of them). Or maybe it was down to the conductor whose stick technique lacked precision at times, and whose presence on the platform was in need of something a little more authentic.
Ives’s studious creation failed to come alive for me, though the performance hasn’t dented my appetite for learning more about the composer.