Pianist Barry Douglas unleashes his talents on the German composer's formidable back catalogue
When picture editors are looking for images of Brahms, they often gravitate towards the thick-set, heavily bearded figure depicted in photos from his later years, where the composer had the grave, forbidding demeanour of an Old Testament prophet.
As the Laurens drawing reproduced on the inside cover of Belfast pianist Barry Douglas’s new album, Brahms: Works For Solo Piano Vol.2, reminds us, however, the young Brahms had a strikingly lean and beautiful profile, with dreamily introspective features and a flowing mane of hair to rival that of his contemporary, Liszt, keyboard tiger of the 19th century and idol of the swooning salonistas.
Laurens’s portrait was produced in 1853, when Brahms was 20-years-old, and about to complete his 'Third Piano Sonata', the main work in Volume Two of Douglas’s complete recording of the composer’s solo piano music for Chandos Records.
Douglas knows that it’s a young man’s piece, packed with emotion and high Romantic intensity, and that’s the way he plays it.
The mighty Allegro maestoso which opens the sonata is taken broadly, the left-hand accompanimental figures rumbling ominously, the first subject unravelling with deliberately measured tread, in darkly ruminative fashion.
The explosion of octaves as the development section dramatically announces itself is ripped into by Douglas in a way that makes it clear that not one iota of the leonine technique that helped him win the coveted Tchaikovksy Prize over a quarter of a century ago has gone missing.
Douglas is still as capable as he ever was of eliciting massive sonorities from a Steinway, without the richness and plenitude of his tone deteriorating.
Interestingly, Douglas’s account of the second movement Andante has more sense of forward momentum than many rival versions. Noting that the slowest tempo marking in this movement is reserved for its conclusion, Douglas is careful to not let the earlier sections drag – they are, after all, about two lovers ardently embracing one another 'in rapture' on a moonlit night, not nodding off to sleep lulled by a dreamy nocturne.
There are more fireworks in the fiendishly difficult Scherzo, tossed off with commanding nonchalance by Douglas, and again in the Finale, where he convincingly marshalls the music’s transition from moody introspection to the triumphant daylight of its exuberant conclusion.
All told, Douglas’s is a riveting, hugely authoritative performance of the 'Third Sonata', fit to stand comparison with the finest available on record, including that of the great Julius Katchen. As in Volume One, Douglas fills the remainder of the programme with shorter pieces from different phases of Brahms’s long career as a composer for the piano.
Douglas’s hypersensitivity to the constantly shifting emotional temperature of Brahms’s late music is nowhere better illustrated than in his flickeringly allusive account of the 'Op. 117 No. 2 Intermezzo', where the pianist’s subtleties of touch and inflection are manifoldly suggestive, catching to virtual perfection the mercurial switches in mood and colouring that can happen literally from one bar of the music to another.
The music of the 'A minor Intermezzo (Op. 116 No. 2)' has almost tragic inwardness, and Douglas gives an unflinchingly honest insight to its moments of existential fragility and incertitude. The 'E major Intermezzo (No. 6 of the same Op. 116 set)' is in some ways a companion piece, but Douglas carefully registers its superficially more concessive lyrical gestures.
Again, though, one notes the disquieting undertones elicited by Douglas in the more flowing middle section, where by careful, suggestive balancing of left and right-hand parts he coaxes from the music shades of ambivalence, which remain dormant in more ordinary performances.
Douglas’s performances are, in summary, anything but ordinary, and often a revelation. The maturity of interpretive outlook accruing from his three decades on the concert platform is finding a rich outlet in this Chandos Brahms series, which continues to be essential listening. It’s music whose time has come for him, and which he is currently playing magnificently.