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By Anne Midgette
With his chin-length mane of brown hair, his concentration and his tendency to fall back into his chair like a reclining Roman warrior at the end of particularly intense passages, the cellist Gautier Capuçon looked every inch the prototype of the romantic musician. Meanwhile the pianist, Gabriela Montero, was tall, relaxed and dressed like someone you might meet at a trendy cocktail party, in a silvery shirtdress, leggings and knee-high leather boots.
Tuesday night's concert at the Library of Congress, in other words, was definitely a dialogue between two distinct individuals.
Individuals, moreover, with powerful gifts of self-expression. Capuçon, all Sturm und Drang and ardor, dug into the low strings of his cello to produce a loamy, rich sound. Montero played with the ease of someone chatting with a friend, her laid-back air belying the volume of sound that she produced, sometimes with the percussive brittleness of glass, sometimes opening like a window to let the breeze waft through the score. The contrast enhanced the effect of a dialogue between his traditional approach and her more contemporary one.
The two have been talking in this way for quite a while. Two-thirds of Tuesday's program, cello sonatas by Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, was featured on the recording they released in 2008, called "Rhapsody."
Capuçon is a French virtuoso who has played with a host of luminaries; the Brazilian-born Montero -- part of the quartet that played at President Obama's inauguration -- won renown with an album of improvisations based on Bach, and frequently improvises during her concerts. The closest she got on Tuesday, though, came during a protracted wait for latecomers to find their seats between the opening Prokofiev Sonata in C and the Mendelssohn Second Cello sSonata that followed it; while Capuçon filled the time tuning his instrument, Montero, at one point, artlessly tapped out the theme from "Jeopardy!"
The rest of the concert was played entirely as written. The Prokofiev is a piece with the warmth of old oak, mellow and sweet, the angles and jagged edges of the composer's youth worn away with age (or through the restrictions of the Soviet Composers Union, which compelled the composer to attempt to be ingratiating). Capuçon attacked its opening with such abandon that the G-force nearly pulled him off the pitch.
The Mendelssohn was no less impassioned, particularly on his part. The first-movement dialogue between the two instruments was positively operatic; the second movement began with the weighty agility of a bear dancing to the sound of a music box; and the big chorale-like arcs of the third movement evoked the composers who flanked the work more than Bach, whose influence the music supposedly reflects. For all his ardor, though, Capuçon couldn't always carry the richness of his lower notes up to the top; on the upper strings, his fortes sometimes grew a touch strident.
The choice of works underlined that this was a joint concert of equals. The Mendelssohn gives the two instruments equal weight, and the magnificent Rachmaninoff Sonata in G Minor -- the evening's highlight -- favors the piano. It's refreshing to hear someone with a decidedly un-virtuoso approach tackle Rachmaninoff's big piano lines -- Montero had a couple of finger tangles but carried her side for the most part with aplomb. Capuçon, meanwhile, exulted in the gorgeous lyricism of the second movement, and everyone exulted along with him.