Back in the mid 1980s, when I first fell in love with Fauré, I bought a boxed-set recording of the composer’s complete chamber music played by a group of exciting young French musicians. They performed these revelatory works with more colour than ineffability, and with more spirit, passion and sheer imagination than the British at that time tended to permit the composer. Wearing out the LPs day after day, I absorbed not only the language of Fauré, but also the style of this aesthetic – the colour, the flair, the variety of tone. The violinist was Augustin Dumay.
Since then there’s been a lot of water under the bridge – and a tunnel under the English Channel. You can get from central London to central Brussels, where Dumay now lives, in about two hours. I've loved his playing for nearly 30 years, so it seemed high time that I had a good violinish talk with him. So I've just been to meet him at his family home, a graceful Art Nouveau-style townhouse on a hill with a view right across the Belgian capital, where he is now in charge of the violin class at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, the city’s answer to the Curtis Institute of Music in the US.
There was a good excuse, admittedly – a new recording on which he conducts and performs some all-too-rare masterpieces by Saint-Saëns. Still, Dumay – gangly gait and blazing gaze as strong as ever, and his trademark long hair somewhat, though not excessively, tamed – may have been a little startled by the long list of questions I wanted to throw at him. At 62, he’s a busy man, sought after not just as a violinist, but as a conductor, top-level teacher and competition juror; there’s even a film about him by the distinguished director Gérard Corbiau, Augustin Dumay – Laisser un trace dans la coeur, due out soon on DVD. So we’re splitting this interview in two: today, we look at the violin, his training and his partnership with Maria Joao Pires; in the next instalment, conducting, teaching, competitions and a few thoughts about life, the universe and globalisation.
But Dumay has an intriguing combination of traditions to offer. While he was growing up in Paris (where his father was a lawyer, his mother a cellist and painter), his original mentor was none other than Nathan Milstein, as Russian-school as Russian can be.
“My education was really mixed from the beginning,” he explains. “My first teacher was working a lot with the Russian technique for violin and just after that I met Nathan Milstein, who was a main influence from the Russian school. After I had worked with him for five or six years, when he was living between Paris and London, he was moving to America and he told me, ‘You know, I am leaving, I will be always very happy to see you and we continue to have contact – but because you are very young, you need someone who is able to work with you day after day. My friend Arthur Grumiaux is in Brussels and he is able to do that.’ This is how I was able to come from the Russian technique to the Franco-Belgian tradition. I think this is a very interesting mix.
“Grumiaux [pictured left] was coming straight from the tradition of Ysaÿe. But he was someone who would not speak a lot – you had always to ask him a lot of things. He was timid, very sensitive, and very often I had to ask him, ‘But what do you think about this?’ – like a child, always asking...”
The different approaches of Milstein and Grumiaux proved complementary, healthily so for the hungry young Dumay. “It was the obsession of Milstein to be free, physically so. Nothing must be blocked, everything must be absolutely flexible and released in terms of muscles, in terms of attitude with the violin. Grumiaux was more classical, and very strict in terms of musical conception: he was focused on the classical style. For him this was very, very important. I was young, I was a little crazy and I was very passionate – I wanted to be very expressive. Grumiaux would always say: ‘Quiet, quiet...we have to put things in the right place.’ After, when the things can be in the right place, this is the classical spirit. Then we can be as crazy as we want!”
A further, more unlikely mentor awaited, through whom Dumay hit the headlines in earnest. The violinist, by then in his mid twenties, was building a career steadily and had attracted the attention of EMI France. While recording the Brahms sonatas for them, he headed for the engineer’s room to listen back to some takes – only to discover Herbert von Karajan there, listening too. “He was in the studio by chance, doing the post-production for an opera he was recording. And it was very good because if I’d known before that he would be there, I would have been nervous, but I was not.”
Karajan promptly invited Dumay to play with him the following week in a big Paris concert with the Berlin Philharmonic. “This was making a horrible disorganisation of the concert programme and all the organisers were furious,” Dumay adds, with some glee. But Karajan was Karajan: what he said went. Dumay played. The rest we know.
Karajan is long gone now, but there’s one especially vital ongoing presence in Dumay’s musical life: his long-time duo partner, the Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires. Before heading to Brussels I caught up with some of the articles that have been written about the violinist in the past few years. In one, he and Pires describe the supposedly stormy process of recording Beethoven sonatas together. They are so different, they have such terrible fights, there are threats, the sparks fly... I put this to Dumay. He confides, twinkling across the coffee pot: “It’s not true!”
Gosh – as a journalist you have to be really careful with musicians. Sometimes they like to beat you at your own game. “I don’t understand why, but after this recording some people, I don’t know who, wanted to present things in a very original way about the difference between us,” says Dumay. “They want to focus on this difference. Sure, when we work we have a different view of the music – but this is always true for everybody. And this is what is interesting in chamber music, or in the rapport of conductors with soloists: with each person it’s different. If we are a photocopy of each others’ ideas, it is not interesting at all. It is no more the case with Maria João than anyone else, indeed maybe less so. But some people want to present it like this. I told them: it’s not true, this. And Maria João told me, ‘Well, if that’s what they want, then OK, we can give this to them! It’s not important. What’s important is what’s on the tape.’”
He and Pires inevitably invite the phrase ‘the odd couple’: Dumay towering, fair, all long limbs and locks, Pires tiny and dark, hair shorn gamine-style, a sparrow-like Piaf of the piano. They first met at a festival, Dumay relates, where he was scheduled to perform two concerts with her. “Beforehand, I thought: Maria João, you are a great artist, but we are so different, physically different as well – it’s a shock! – and I am not sure it’s possible. And after ten minutes of rehearsal we stopped and we said to each other: ‘We will play together all our life.’ Because immediately it was something extraordinary.” Over the years, the pair have recorded not only the complete Beethoven sonatas but also works by Brahms, Mozart, Franck, Debussy and many more, plus larger-scale chamber music including the Schumann Piano Quintet (with violinist Renaud Capuçon, violist Gerard Caussé and cellist Jian Wang). Later in 2012 they will be returning to the studio with a selection of six more Mozart sonatas.
Their time has had its ups and downs. They were an off-stage couple too, for a short while; and later Pires made an attempt to scale down her quantity of concerts and move to Brazil to start a music school for underprivileged children. Now, though, Dumay says that she is soon moving to Brussels to join the teaching staff of the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel alongside him. At one point in her thirties, he adds, she tried to give up the piano altogether – to the point that she sold her instrument. Eventually, though, the philanthropist Paul Sacher (to whom composers from Bartok to Boulez have paid lavish musical tribute) heard that she was missing her music, but could no longer afford to buy another instrument. “Her doorbell rang and there was a piano mover with a Steinway, asking where the space was to put it, saying it was a delivery from Mr Sacher...”
But what about Fauré? I tell Dumay I love that complete chamber music set – but it turns out that he doesn’t. “I want to do it again,” he declares, “because I was very young then. In Fauré, you have pieces that are so different, in opposition – for instance, if you compare the first violin sonata to the second, it’s not the same world. When you are young you have more attraction to the light part, and less to the sombre. Now I am more interested by this darker part of Fauré, which you can see in the Trio, the Violin Sonata No.2, the Piano Quintet No.2, these fabulous late pieces. In the first recording, I played the first and second violin sonatas too much in the same light.”
He’s serious about this re-recording: “I was supposed to do it last year, but it was not possible because it was so full of concerts, and when I record I need a lot of time. I need to play the piece a lot of times just before, and for organisation it’s very complicated. Recording something is very serious for me – after all, I will not do three recordings of Fauré pieces, this will be the last one, and the last one has to be specific. It’s a lot of work...”
Stand by for the second part of the JDCMB Augustin Dumay interview, coming up soon. Meanwhile, enjoy listening to him and Maria Joao Pires playing the Beethoven 'Kreutzer' Sonata: