Review: Barry Douglas

This was much more than just a piano concert, writes HARRY DADSWELL.

ballades barry douglas brahms capriccios culture Harry Dadswell intermezzi and piano sonata no.3 in F minor west road

Brahms Capriccios, Ballades, Intermezzi and Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor

West Road Concert Hall, Wednesday 6 March 2013

Barry Douglas’ career was launched in 1986 when he won the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition held in Moscow, the first non-Russian to do so in nearly thirty years. In a documentary about the competition, Barry is seen talking to fellow competitors, sat around a table heaving with empty Soviet beer bottles. When an American, who seems to be the only one drinking Heineken, says that he took less chances musically to avoid making mistakes and hence being eliminated, an angry Douglas blurts out “I’m shocked to hear that.”

What made this concert so gripping was not just that Douglas never shied away from taking chances, but that he simultaneously retaining the utmost control. The first half of the all-Brahms programme consisted of a selection of Capriccios (a lively piece in free form), Ballades (a dramatic and lyrical piece reminiscent of a song setting) and Intermezzi (Romantic character pieces). Douglas’ playing breathed so much life and vigour into the music that I heard each of these works in an entirely new light. Not only did Douglas convey an entirely different mood in each work, but his moods shifted effortlessly from phrase to phrase.

Deserving special mention are the three exquisite Intermezzi Op. 117, described by Brahms as ‘lullabies of my sorrows’. The end of the first intermezzo, where the opening lilting Scottish shepherd’s lullaby returns, was played so tenderly that the piece ended in serene stasis. Having secured the rapt attention of the audience, Douglas avoided breaking the spell by keeping the more restive second intermezzo relatively restrained. Only in one particularly yearning melody in the third intermezzo was this restraint briefly lifted. By managing to make these short pieces feel like three movements of a larger work, Douglas enhanced their dramatic power.

The turbulent opening of Brahm’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, which made up the second half of the concert, could not have been more contrasting in mood. In the development of the first movement, Douglas combined broad chords in his right hand with a spiky bass line in the left, followed by a gently rocking accompaniment figure. This ability to bring out the contrasting characteristics of simulatenous voices helped prevent this symphonic sonata from sounding stodgy and exhausted.

Douglas’ virtuosic technique was on display in the Scherzo, at once sinister and playful, which he dispatched with beguiling ease. In the final movement, which had a characteristically Brahmsian stirring chordal theme, Douglas pulled out all the stops, ending in a blaze that can best be described as orchestral. The Cappricio encore, which he introduced by saying “no prizes for guessing who composed this”, met with audible grunts of approval from the audience. My only regret was that Tchaikovsky, who described Brahms as a ‘giftless bastard’, could not somehow have been raised from the dead to hear Douglas play. I’m sure he would have eaten his words.