A Conversation with Augustin Dumay on Strauss’s and Franck’s Violin Sonatas—and Violin Playing in General
It’s hard to believe that Augustin Dumay, born in 1949, has become an elder statesman. Studying at the Paris Conservatory, he graduated with a first prize, and later came to the attention of Henryk Szeryng, Yehudi Menuhin, Arthur Grumiaux (with whom he worked for five years), and Nathan Milstein. Now his violinistic voice speaks with authority in the pillars of the violin literature, including Beethoven’s violin sonatas, and now, in the sonatas of Strauss and Franck.
R.M.: Jascha Heifetz seemed to have a special affection for the two sonatas on your program; in fact, he chose both of them for his last recital, recorded live in 1972—and he’d recorded each of them years earlier in the studio (Strauss’s twice). Did he influence you in any way?
A.D.: Yes, I know Heifetz’s recording of Strauss’s sonata from his last recital but I wasn’t aware that he also played Franck’s sonata! In terms of influences I have to say that even if I listen to many recordings by other violinists I don’t feel influenced by any of them. Even in relation to Arthur Grumiaux with whom I worked for several years, over time I have realized that if there was any influence at all it would be rather in the form of nuances at the level of the unconscious. For example, I can identify it when I listen to my recordings. I never consciously wanted to play like Grumiaux nor base my style on his. I would rather call it the presence of a perfume which made its way into my own style and which, today, I can associate with Grumiaux’s teaching. I believe that this is how the most enduring traces continue to be present throughout the years. But conformity, imitation, and reproduction lead nowhere: these are interferences that prevent a musician from entering into contact with his own subconscious—an essential step for performing music.
Coming back to Strauss’s sonata, my influences are clearly orchestral. I am thinking of legendary recordings such as Sawallisch and the Vienna Philharmonic, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in the
Four Last Songs
with George Szell or Paul Tortelier in
. With Louis Lortie we always had an orchestral approach to the
in our work sessions. And if one listens carefully, it becomes obvious that this part makes a reference to the entrance of the horns in
, that that passage is clearly
-like or another is an oboe solo. This sonata already contains all the orchestral colors that will be found again in Strauss’s tone poems.
Incidentally, the first time I played this sonata the pianist was...Wolfgang Sawallisch!
R.M.: Strauss’s sonata has been considered—though certainly not looked down upon as—a big concerto-like vehicle for the violinist; but you seem to have found in the work a very different
much closer to the more introverted expressivity in Franck’s sonata than many listeners might have imagined possible. Did you consciously strive to reveal another side of the sonata’s musical personality?
A.D.: In effect there is nothing premeditated in what I try to express here, nor in music in general. None of my musical choices are made as a reaction or comparison to something that has already been done: I try to express what already exists in the music. With Franck, for example, there is a duality between one side that one could call carnal, human, or even sensual and another that is resolutely spiritual, mystical, religious as such as can be found in his organ music or in the
. After a concert in Cremona at which I had played Franck’s sonata, Isaac Stern, who was there, told me that he fully supported the idea that it was essential to define the duality of these two characters.
This duality also exists in Strauss’s music but it’s less obvious. There are some moments that are extroverted, heroic (I’m again thinking of
) and others that are profoundly introspective: The magnificent
, for example, is a powerful prayer. Then it’s a case of carefully identifying the different moments, of expressing that which Strauss expresses, and of not positioning oneself outwards when his world is one of intimacy!
R.M.: Including Heifetz’s transcription of “Auf stillem Waldespfad” seems to reinforce that kinder, gentler view of Strauss’s sonata. It’s not one of Heifetz’s most popular transcriptions—how did you become acquainted with it, and what made you decide to include it on the program.
A.D.: You speak of a “kind, gentle” vision. I don’t know that this is how I would qualify my vision of the work. At any rate I hope that these terms do not clash with intensity! Because here intensity and exaltation should be constantly present, even in the most tender passages. As for the choice of
Auf stillem Waldespfad
, I’m afraid I shall disappoint you: We were looking for a complement and the timing was perfect! But in retrospect, I think this piece is a good “breather” between these two great sonatas.
R.M.: Did Ysaÿe, to whom Franck dedicated his sonata, pass on a tradition of playing it? What would you speculate Ysaÿe’s own performance of the work might have sounded like (or is this just too much guesswork?).
A.D.: This could be answered in many ways according to one’s opinion of Ysaÿe. As for myself, it seems rash and very presumptuous to think that my imagination could steer me towards a truth in order to answer the question. Even when one knows a musician very well, one cannot predetermine his choices nor the path he will take.
R.M.: In the publicity flier accompanying the review copy sent to me, you briefly discuss the small church in which you recorded the program. Did that venue’s atmosphere influence the way you and Louis Lortie reacted to the works in its environs? How different do you think your performance might have been in a large concert hall?
A.D.: My way of playing would be no different at all. If an artist were to be so influenced by his environment this would reflect a paucity of musical convictions!
That said, I was not unhappy to record in a beautiful, calm place that symbolizes the absolute and enjoys wonderful light (I am very sensitive to light). That’s why I so enjoyed recording in this church and I hope to return there.
R.M.: The middle movement of Strauss’s sonata and the “Recitativo-Fantasia” of Franck’s (at least in the beginning) both evince a sort of improvisatory spirit, and your performances of them communicate it.
A.D.: Of course there are similarities. But improvisation is like a dream. The content of improvisation, like that of a dream, may be completely different. In Franck’s “Recitativo-Fantasia,” the inspiration is clearly religious, whereas in the second movement of Strauss’s sonata it is more of a question of a sequence of amorous secrets.
R.M.: I had the pleasure of reviewing the recordings made by your students of Vieuxtemps’s violin concertos. Students in my day often scoffed at violinist-composers like Vieuxtemps, De Bériot, Wieniawski, Ernst, and even, at times, Paganini. Yet those violinists had won the unqualified respect of the non-violinist composers of their day (for example, Berlioz admired Vieuxtemps, Schumann admired Ernst, and Schubert admired Paganini, and so forth). Do you consider playing Vieuxtemps’s concertos to be important to a violinist’s musical (to say nothing of technical) development, even nowadays? Grumiaux himself made great recordings of Vieuxtemps’s Fourth and Fifth concertos. How did Grumiaux feel about the formative value of Vieuxtemps’s works, including his studies?
A.D.: I worked on Vieuxtemps’s Fifth Concerto with Arthur Grumiaux: He used to say that it was excellent for perfecting violin technique. Likewise I think that the in-depth work I carried out with my students from the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel for the recording of the complete concertos was very fruitful for all concerned. But there is a hierarchy amongst composer-violinists. At the top I would place Enescu and Ysaÿe because they are also composers of other music, not only for violinists but for musicians. Next come those who have composed for their instrument and who, even if they are nonetheless important for violinists, are much less so for the history of music.
To come back to Grumiaux, I think it was circumstance that spurred him to record Vieuxtemps’s Fourth and Fifth concertos: Like the composer, he was Belgian by nationality, and he was a winner of the Vieuxtemps competition. But as you rightly say, his recording is magnificent because he had great musical imagination. And great musical talent is not only recognizable through the interpretation of the great and brilliant composers but also through the approach that the musician has in relation to less important music, in other words, his capacity to elevate a musical text.
R.M.: The violin culture seems to have changed. I’ve noticed that many young violinists actually make their recorded debuts now in all 10 Beethoven sonatas or all six of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas. How old were you when you first recorded the complete set of Beethoven’s sonatas? Your recording of them on Deutsche Grammophon was a landmark. Would it have been similarly impressive 20 years earlier? How old were Heifetz, Szigeti, Oistrakh, Francescatti when they’d recorded all of Beethoven’s sonatas in a set?
A.D.: Mostly the great violinists you mention recorded their complete sets of Beethoven sonatas between 50 and 60 after a long and varied career when they could draw on the breadth of their experience. As for myself, I played my first complete set of sonatas in concert at the age of... 18! That made me understand that it was pointless recording them until I had lived with them for 30 years. And, in fact, I only recorded the complete set 35 years later. This also goes for the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms and is the reason why I am only going to record them now. Of course, everyone is free to take risks but recording these
s too early poses a risk, above all for...the works themselves!
If young musicians concentrate on the great works of repertoire to undertake a long journey of accomplishment through them, this is respectable. But if the purpose is just to do some chic marketing, that’s a lot less...
R.M.: You’ve been called a representative of the Franco-Belgian school. Do you think that violin playing has become homogenized by the internationalization of training? Is that a blessing or a curse—or maybe a mixed blessing or mixed curse?
A.D.: If you had asked me this question 30 years ago I would have answered that the sooner one abandons the idea and notion of school the better. Because an artist’s role in life is to find his own path, to put forward his own vision of the world. Today in this scenario of internationalization and globalization in which everyone plays very well, where the technical level is incredibly high, but in which one is so often unable to distinguish one from another, then perhaps the notion of school can re-discover its nobility.
R.M.: You played, I think, a Stradivarius that once belonged to Kreisler. Is that the violin you used in this recording? How did you happen to acquire it, and what has your relationship with it been like over the years?
A.D.: I have played the violin you mention for a long time. But for some 10 years or so I have been playing a magnificent last edition Guarnerius del Gesù, which used to belong to Leonid Kogan and to Wolfgang Schneiderhan. In fact, one part of Beethoven’s sonatas were recorded on the Stradivarius and the other on the Guarnerius. I came by the violin by chance. I have a utilitarian relationship with it when I play and I am respectful and admiring of the art object when I’m not. For the time being it is the instrument that best allows me to express what I want to express. But if tomorrow I was offered an unknown and modern violin that sounded better, of course I would play it!
R.M.: Would you care to discuss any future recording projects with Onyx?
A.D.: My most important future recording projects for the next years are, as previously mentioned, the Beethoven and Brahms concertos as well as Bartók’s Second Concerto with the Montreal Orchestra led by Kent Nagano, Mendelssohn’s Concerto with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and definitely a new CD with Louis Lortie. I will also be making recordings as conductor of the Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra (Osaka) which has been under my musical direction since 2011. The first, released in 2012, was dedicated to Saint-Saëns; the second includes Beethoven’s two
s and Brahms’s
Auf Stillem Waldespfad
Prelude, Fugue, and Variation in b
Augustin Dumay (vn); Louis Lortie (pn)
ONYX 4096 (73:10)