Opposing Forces

While pianist Maria João Pires and violinist and conductor Augustin Dumay –  who are returning to the NCPA to perform for the SOI Spring 2020 Season – are individually revered for their outstanding musical capabilities, it is when  they share the stage that something quite out of the ordinary happens. By Freyan Patel

The differences between Maria João Pires and Augustin Dumay are obvious. Just by looking at the two, comparisons are unavoidable – he is tall, leonine, with piercing eyes and a mane of hair only slightly tamed with age; she is tiny and elegant, like a sparrow about to take flight, hair worn short, gamine, highlighting her delicate features that make her seem even more fragile. Dumay is more of a showman, the extrovert, dashing violinist and conductor, while Pires is a concert pianist who prefers intimate venues with smaller crowds (but, by her own admission, hates piano recitals in which she is the sole centre of attention). Yet, for all their apparent differences, Dumay admits in a 2012 interview with Jessica Duchen, their odd couple tag is more media hype than anything else. “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. If we are a photocopy of each other’s ideas, it is not interesting at all.”

The two first met at a festival where they were scheduled to play together, and while they were a couple off-stage for a short time, theirs is not a love story, but something much more special. Dumay says, “After 10 minutes of rehearsal, we stopped and said to each other, ‘We will play together all our life.’ Because immediately it was something extraordinary.” Over two decades since then, the duo has put out a string of recordings, collaborating on the works of Brahms, Debussy, Schumann, Franck, Ravel, and most notably, Mozart and Beethoven. Their recordings of Beethoven’s complete sonatas for Deutsche Grammophon earned them glowing reviews, with Piano International making comparisons to legendary musical pairings such as Grumiaux and Haskil; Menuhin and Kempff; Perlman and Ashkenazy. But that was in 2002. Fast forward to the present and this pair has reached close to legendary status themselves.


Portuguese-born Pires is, by all means, a musical virtuoso. Her C.V. certainly reads as much. Pires started playing the piano at three, performed in public for the first time at five, and at 16, graduated from the Lisbon Conservatory, where she learnt piano and composition among other things. She has studied under Rosl Schmidt and Karl Engel, and in 1970, won the Beethoven Bicentennial Competition in Brussels. Her 1986 London debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall won her great acclaim, following which she played with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, under none other than Claudio Abbado, on its inaugural tour. By 1989, Pires had signed a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, made a successful New York debut and marked the start of her years of collaboration with Dumay. In the years that followed, the two travelled across Europe and Japan extensively, and by 1996, made their first trio recording with cellist Jian Wang, who they play with to this day. From the time of her debut, Pires has been a regular visitor with major orchestras around the globe, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestre de Paris to name a few. She has worked with many greats, both on stage and in the recording studio, including André Previn, Bernard Haitink, Emmanuel Krivine and Trevor Pinnock.   

So you see – Pires is a virtuoso. But try getting her to admit it. Pires, it seems, is not easy to compliment. In an interview with David Patrick Stearns, she bats away his suggestion that she has a natural facility for the piano, “I don’t think so. I have small hands. Many technical problems.” For Pires, her career has never been something she’s pursued, rather something she fell into, “I never had much time for the piano. I was always an amateur somehow. I did the career… it was not on purpose. It was not wanted and it was not very natural.” So why play at all? Pires may dislike concerts and finds recitals (for which she credits/blames Chopin – who she plays with an intimate brilliance, by the way) too odd and alienating, but she loves recording and, beyond anything, loves music. Her understanding of it is more intuitive and contemplative – like her playing. Take her thoughts on Chopin, for example, whose music, Stearns believes, one needs an ego to perform. She disagrees. “Chopin is a poet. It’s very inner music and very deep. I don’t feel at all it’s for show.”

Music aside, Pires, at 75, is a mother of six – four grown daughters and two adopted teenage sons – and an avid believer in Buddhist teachings and philosophy (she will not call herself a Buddhist though, finding labels too restricting). The latter has perhaps contributed greatly to two things. First, her belief that music is “proof that miracles exist”, that it has the power to help us reflect on the mysteries of the universe. And second, her desire to contribute to humanity. In 1998, Pires took time off from performing to set-up Belgais in Portugal, a school to help underprivileged children find a better life through the arts. But the relationship with the government, that was aiding Belgais, soured, and Pires left Portugal in the early 2000s for Brazil. Belgais is not something the otherwise candid Pires likes to open up about, choosing instead to explain it as a very difficult time. But old wounds, though not forgotten, are not a deterrent for Pires, who is working on similar projects in Brazil. Apart from her work with underprivileged children, Pires is also Master in Residence of the Piano Department at the exclusive Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Brussels. Pianist, mother, living legend, reluctant performer, eager teacher, virtuoso – so many responsibilities for just one tiny person? Somehow I get the feeling that is exactly as Pires likes it.


It does not take anything away from the many accomplishments of Augustin Dumay to say that his life and career have been shaped by a handful of remarkable mentors. If anything, it does credit to his reputation as the Mozart and Beethoven violin virtuoso that he is today, and reveals the passionate, enthusiastic student he initially was. Dumay’s early influences are an interesting juxtaposition of styles that display themselves wonderfully in his playing today. His first teacher in Paris, where he grew up, was greatly influenced by the Russian violin technique, but it was his first mentor, the great Nathan Milstein, who truly started to mould Dumay’s playing. Six years in, Milstein left for America, but not before putting his student in touch with another teacher, Arthur Grumiaux, who was as firm a believer in the more classical Ysaÿe technique of violin as Milstein was of the freer, more expressive Russian. The mesh, rather than confusing the young student, strengthened him, forcing him to learn control and mastery before allowing him freedom of expression. The end result is a quality of sound that is distinct and imaginative, full of subtle inflections and passion.

It was not until 1979 that another, unexpected mentor stepped in to change Dumay’s career path dramatically. Now in his twenties, Dumay had recorded Brahms’s sonatas with EMI France at the time. During one session, he stepped into the engineer’s room to listen only to find he had an audience – Herbert von Karajan. Karajan liked what he heard and invited Dumay to play at a large concert in Paris a few days later with Yo-Yo Ma and the Berlin Philharmonic. The organisers were furious; their programme suddenly lay disorganised. But who would dare say no to Karajan? Shortly after his performance, Dumay was once again invited to play with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, this time with Sir Colin Davis. The performance, Bartók’s second concerto, earned Dumay praise from the audience and critics and the rest, as they say, is history.

But the violin is just one aspect of Dumay’s musical life. Like Pires, Dumay too is Master in Residence at the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Brussels (now his hometown), where he teaches gifted young violinists and helps steer them. That is not all – at Karajan’s encouragement, he took up the baton, and became the music director of the Royal Chamber Orchestra of Wallonie and is presently with the Kansai Philharmonic today.

Of course, the final mentor (or influencer might be a better word) in Dumay’s life is Pires herself, who admits to learning as much from him as he has from her. Despite their great working relationship, Pires remembers having major blowouts when recording their now legendary Beethoven sonatas, “Each of us wanted different things. So you learn to compromise – but not on the important things. And in other things, you suddenly find another way to do it.” Pires can rest easy in the knowledge that, however tumultuous the process, “what came out eventually” is nothing short of magic. When they play together it is not just a display of two musical talents hitting the right notes. As journalist Duchen puts it, “Dumay and Pires together form a musical entity in and of itself, one with magnetism, magic and musical insight that never ceases. Their Franck Sonata had me in a state of total surrender within minutes.”

Maria João Pires and Augustin Dumay will perform with the Symphony Orchestra of India on 16th February at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre and on 18th February at the Tata Theatre.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the September 2014 and February 2020 issues of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.