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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D Op.61 (1806) [44:39]
Symphony No. 8 in F Op.93 (1812) [25:08]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sextet No. 1 in B flat Op.18 (1859-60) [37:24]
Augustin Dumay (violin/conductor)
Sinfonia Varsovia
Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra
Svetlin Roussev (violin); Miguel da Silva, Marie Chilemme (violas); Henri Demarquette, Aurélien Pascal (cellos)
rec. 2010/14, Polish Radio Studio, Warsaw; Suntory Hall, Tokyo; Salle Colonne, Paris
ONYX 4154 [69:47 + 37:24]

Born in 1949 in Paris and a pupil of Roland Charmy and Arthur Grumiaux, Augustin Dumay has been playing the violin beautifully on record for decades. For years he was an EMI Classics artist. Then he had a spell with Deutsche Grammophon and now he is with Onyx. They are allowing him to set down some of his interpretations as a conductor, in addition to revisiting old repertoire and catching up with some works he has not previously recorded. This attractively packaged double album, in the book format that is becoming popular, features him as soloist, conductor and chamber musician. As a rule, I am not a believer in violinists’ ‘family trees’, but there is no denying the continuity in the teacher-pupil line of Eugčne Ysa’e, Alfred Dubois, Arthur Grumiaux and Augustin Dumay – for all four, beauty of tone seems to have been the first consideration.

France has an honourable place in the history of Beethoven interpretation. Usually Joseph Joachim is regarded as the man who revived the Violin Concerto, in 1844 but in truth the first Paris performance, given on 23 March 1828 by Pierre Baillot, was quite a landmark. It was so successful that he had to repeat the work later in the season. Paris was one of the first cities to appreciate the string quartets, and many Franco-Belgian violinists have followed Baillot’s lead in playing the D major Concerto. Having said that, not many of them have recorded it effectively. Jacques Thibaud and Lucien Capet were never asked to do it, and in 78rpm days only Henri Merckel achieved it. Grumiaux was a fine interpreter of it, yet in recent years the only French recording that has stuck in my collection is that by Jean-Jacques Kantorow, a much underrated artist.

Augustin Dumay, who gave us a very fine set of the Violin Sonatas on DG, with Maria-Joćo Pires, has set himself a further challenge in the Concerto by both playing the solo violin and conducting. Adolf Busch used to do it, on tour with his American chamber orchestra, but he preferred to have a sympathetic conductor. Dumay sets a good tempo for the Allegro ma non troppo and directs an excellent tutti. When he enters, he plays as beautifully as ever, always keeping the solo line airborne. The strange thing is that each time there is a tutti, he makes it really vigorous and slightly increases the pace, as if the conductor Dumay is disagreeing with the soloist Dumay or even admonishing him. The G minor episode, where a Busch or a Kogan or a Perlman can catch your breath with the Innigkeit of his playing, rather passes by as if Dumay has enough to do, just keeping himself and the orchestra together. As soon as he reaches the Kreisler cadenza and has no other responsibilities, he plays superbly, and the end of the cadenza, leading into the re-entry of the orchestra, is really magical. In the Larghetto, he opts for the rhapsodic approach, which for me is always a disappointment. Readers will be aware that in this sublime movement, there are two passages marked cantabile, to be played on the lower strings. The three violinists mentioned above make these passages into a double holy-of-holies, almost disappearing into themselves with the intensity of their playing – incidentally, Perlman is best heard in his recording with Barenboim. Dumay makes no impression with the first passage and in the second, he actually plays rather loudly and plainly. I am sure it is intentional, done for contrast, but for me it does not work at all. He has no problems with the Rondo finale although, for the first time in my experience, the long Kreisler cadenza feels a little long-winded, which tells me that a certain amount of spontaneity is lacking. My overall impression is that, linked with a sympathetic conductor, Dumay could have given us a great Beethoven Concerto. As it is, like legions of others, his effort falls short of his potential.

Rather to my surprise, I enjoyed the live performance of the Eighth Symphony much more. Apparently Dumay has been conducting the Kansai Philharmonic of Osaka regularly since 2008, and this recording was made on one of their trips to Tokyo. He sets a good tempo for the Allegro vivace e con brio and it receives an exciting performance, with splendid impetus and a good range of dynamics. A very quiet audience betrays its presence only by a few rustlings between movements. The Allegretto scherzando ticks along pleasingly, the Minuet is very agreeable, with the tempo of the Trio nicely related to the main tempo, and Dumay again finds the tempo giusto for the final Allegro vivace. I did raise an eyebrow at the rather wide vibrato of the solo bassoon, but otherwise the orchestral playing is excellent.

Brahms’s First Sextet, which comes as a bonus disc – you pay just the price of one CD – is a very friendly performance, beautifully played. Dumay’s colleagues are a mixture of youngsters and veterans, of whom I have previously encountered only Miguel da Silva, formerly with the now-disbanded Quatuor Ysa’e. The opening Allegro ma non troppo struck me as being quite broad, even leisurely, but as soon as I started making one or two comparisons, I ran into trouble. The version by the Kocian Quartet with two members of the Smetana Quartet (Denon CO-2141), for instance, feels faster and more coherent. However, if you factor in the exposition repeat, played by Dumay and Co. but omitted by the Czechs – probably so that they can get both Sextets on to the same disc – the overall timing is virtually identical. When you start comparing the other movements, you find a variety of differing approaches which all seem to work – I have at least eight other performances on my shelves. So I shall simply report that Dumay and his friends play the pizzicato passage near the end of the first movement very well. They set an excellent tempo for the Variations but then vary the pulse a good deal and end the movement very sensitively. They provide a nice springy Scherzo and they again vary the tempo considerably in an easy-going final Rondo, taking some of it quite slowly and then perking up, according to the nature of the music. Most listeners will enjoy this performance which, like the others in the set, is very well recorded.

Tully Potter


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