Barry Douglas

Jenny Cathcart takes a trip down memory lane at Fermanagh Live thanks to the virtuoso pianist

As I make my way to see the internationally acclaimed pianist Barry Douglas deliver the opening concert of the 2014 Fermanagh Live festival at Enniskillen’s Ardhowen theatre, my thoughts turn to Belfast in the mid-1970s.

It was a time when there seemed to be turmoil and trouble around every street corner; the Ulster Worker’s Strike paralysed the city for a day. And yet the Belfast Festival at Queen's defied the bombs and the bullets, bringing Yehudi Menuhin to play at the Grand Opera House.

James Galway came home to perform with the Ulster Orchestra. Liam Neeson was at the Lyric Theatre appearing in Brian Friel’s Translations, and the Ulster poets Michael Longley and Frank Ormsby and their newest recruit in to the Belfast Group, Paul Muldoon – my new boss in the BBC Radio Ulster's arts department – were scribbling quietly away.

I was living in a house on the Malone Road, where my landlady, who occupied the top floor, was an Austrian lady named Felicitas Le Winter. A pianist and pupil of Emil von Sauer and grand pupil of Liszt, Miss Le Winter – like Miss Swartz in Bernard MacLaverty’s short story, My Dear Palestrina – was an inspirational piano teacher.

It was she who, in 1976 and with spectacular results, encouraged the 16-year-old Methodist College pupil, Barry Douglas, to devote all his energies and considerable musical talent to the piano. Until then, Douglas had been equally proficient on the clarinet, the organ, or the cello.

In a recent television conversation with BBC Northern Ireland presenter Marie Louise Muir, Douglas described how Le Winter changed his life – the international aspect of her experience with the music of Liszt inspired him. Her ideas on how, technically, to create a sound that would excite people showed him what the piano was really capable of.

Douglas started to practice for up to eight hours a day, and within two years had won the Northern Irish finals of the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year. In 1986, exactly ten years on from his meeting with Le Winter, he won the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition.

In the intimate atmosphere of a dimly lit Ardhowen auditorium, an expectant audience take their seats. Unsurprisingly – since Douglas has recently embarked on a major project to record the entire solo piano works of Brahms and Schubert – the programme is devoted to pieces by those two composers.

Douglas finally appears on stage, dressed somewhat casually in black tea shirt and dress suit, and from the first chords of his opening piece, Franz Peter Schubert’s 'Impromptus Opus 90 nos. 1-4', he immediately displays his mastery of the keyboard. His strong hands and delicate fingers interpret the romantic repertoire with acute sensitivity but not a hint of sentimentality. With its scale-based often chromatic melody in triplets, 'Impromptu no. 2' is especially alluring, rapturous and lively.

The German-born composer, Johannes Brahms – who spent most of his life in Vienna – composed the 'Sonata no. 1 in C' when he was just 19-years-old, but he was determined to impress his peers with a dramatic piece which is technically as difficult as his later piano concerti. Nonetheless, Douglas predictably reassures his audience with a commanding and flawless performance.

The second half of the concert begins with more Brahms, the 16 short waltzes that make up 'Opus 39', the most famous of which is the beguiling no. 15. Intriguing is the way Douglas seems to play certain notes with vibrato as one would a violin. His dynamics are clear and precise as he achieves the same tonal effects, whether with the left or the right hand.

Brahms' 'Variations on a Theme of Schumann, Opus 9', which was dedicated to Clara Schumann, opens with a sequence of notes that spell her name. The overall mood is one of melancholy, perhaps because Schumann’s husband, the composer Robert Schumann, is currently suffering from mental illness.

By now Douglas’s capacity to immerse himself totally in the music and memorize such an extended programme of difficult pieces is undeniably impressive, as is the compactness and overall humility of his style of playing.

The final piece, Brahms 'Variations on a theme of Paganini, Opus 35', is based on the 'Caprice No. 24 in A minor' by Niccolo Paganini and is immediately recognisable as the theme tune for ITV’s The South Bank Show. Douglas’s interpretation has clarity and a brilliant lightness of touch.

When all is finised, Douglas leaves the stage to rapturous applause, returning several times to take a bow before finally offering an encore, his own arrangement of 'My Lagan Love'.

From the man who established the Clandeboye Festival and Camerate Ireland – so that young people from across Ireland can come together to make music – this is an impeccable concert which will inspire a new generation of classical music lovers as Douglas was once inspired.

Fermanagh Live continues in venues across Enniskillen until October 5.

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