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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Serenade No. 1, Op. 11 [50:45]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Romance No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra [7:30]
Romance No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra [8:54]
Augustin Dumay (violin)
Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra/Augustin Dumay
ec. 4-6 May 2012, Matsukata Hall, Kobe, Japan
ONYX 4101 [67:28]

Originally founded in 1970 as a 25-member string chamber orchestra, the Osaka-based Kansai Philharmonic has since more than doubled its ranks to become a 58-musician orchestra complete with winds, brass, and percussion. Renowned French violinist Augustin Dumay was appointed music director in 2011. Together, they made their recording debut with Saint-Säens’ First Symphony and Cello Concerto for Onyx in 2012. In this, their second release for Onyx, they present an interesting juxtaposition of Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 and Beethoven’s two Romances for violin and orchestra.

Brahms completed the Serenade No. 1 in 1857, around the same time that he was working on his First Piano Concerto. Originally scored for wind and string octet, it was expanded for chamber nonet and subsequently arranged for full orchestra. The orchestral version was published in 1860, making it Brahms’ first orchestral work in print. The Serenade is in six movements and lasts just over 50 minutes, making it a relatively substantial orchestral composition. It gives a foretaste of the symphonic Brahms that was to come. The first movement (Allegro molto)gets off to a lively start and is followed by second (Scherzo: Allegro non troppo)and third (Adagio non troppo)movements of a pleasant, bucolic nature. The fourth (Menuetto I - Menuetto II) and fifth (Scherzo: Allegro) movements are considerably shorter; the fourth is reminiscent of Mozartean minuets while the fifth with its horn-calls carries the spirit of the hunt. The final Rondo, brisk and galloping in tempo, ends with a memorable and uplifting conclusion. While the Kansai Philharmonic might not have quite the fullness heard in Istvan Kertesz’s Decca recording with the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca SXL 6340, 1967; Australian Eloquence ELQ4804839, 2012 or 466 672-2, 2002) or in Bernard Haitink’s Philips recording with the Royal Concertgebouw (Philips 9500 322, 1977; Decca 4782365, 2010), orchestral textures are remarkably clear and colourful. That is not to say that the Kansai Philharmonic is not capable of producing a big sound. On the contrary, just listen to how effectively they are able gradually and controllably to build up energy and momentum in the closing measures of the final movement. From the sound of it, Dumay has certainly inspired some fine playing in his strings, and the winds and horns are particularly commendable for their clarity, intonation, and articulation.

Augustin Dumay goes from being conductor to both soloist and conductor in Beethoven’s two Romances for Violin and Orchestra. He performs both quite affectionately, playing with a sweetness of tone and delicacy of phrasing that is perfectly matched to these lyrical works. The members of the orchestra provide their leader with a sensitive and well-balanced accompaniment. While my favourite for these works has previously been the outstanding, budget-priced recording with Christian Tetzlaff and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (Arte Nova 769940, 2006), Dumay and his Japanese orchestra now offer a very fine alternative.

These performances are captured in excellent, clear sound. Presentation is slightly laid back, and the soundstage is both wide and deep. For works that don’t generate a tremendous amount of bass power, bass extension is nonetheless quite deep and aurally satisfying, which for me translated into a greater appreciation of the impact and presence of the double basses and timpani.

This was my first exposure to the Kansai Philharmonic under Dumay’s direction and I certainly enjoyed this recording. If their first two CDs for Onyx are any indication of the quality of performance and sound to come from this orchestra I look forward to their upcoming releases.

Albert Lam