Brahms Works for Solo Piano

Barry Douglas is 'in absolutely top form' in his first studio album for over a decade

‘I didn't really have anything to say. I just wanted to play concerts.’ That’s Belfast pianist Barry Douglas’s own assessment of why, a decade after his famous triumph at the 1986 Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, he simply walked away from the recording studio, with no plans for returning.

Put plainly, Douglas was simply sick of the whole recording process, its remoteness from the physicality of the concert platform, playing real music to real people. He hadn’t made a solo album in 15 years or more, until the A&R men from the leading English label, Chandos Records, recently came knocking.

Their proposition was stunning – two mammoth projects, potentially occupying the next decade, to record the complete piano music of both Brahms and Schubert. At a time of radical downsizing in the recording industry, it was a massive vote of confidence in Douglas’s artistic credentials, and his status as one of classical music’s foremost living interpreters.

Volume One in the Brahms series shows Douglas already thinking outside the box artistically: instead of grouping works generically or chronologically, he mixes different types of pieces from various stages of Brahms’s career as a composer.

The album has, therefore, very much the feeling of an intelligently planned live recital, rather than a dutifully sequential plod through the opus numbers. Much of the material was, in fact, included in Douglas’s keynote recital at last year’s Clandeboye Festival, before recording sessions took place in Cambridge over two days in November.

The playing itself shows Chandos Records’ faith in Douglas to be fully vindicated. Douglas has always had technique to die for, and huge reserves of pianistic power at his disposal.

What he has added in the years of voluntary exile from the recording studio, however, is a new finesse and subtlety, a breadth and depth of emotion emanating from his profoundly Romantic instincts as an artist.

You need that emotion in Brahms, and you can hear it in the swirling ebb and flow of 'Rhapsody, Op. 79 No. 1', its gradual, simmering ascent to the impassioned central climax commandingly mapped out by Douglas, its afterglow unravelling beatifically.

The 'Intermezzo, Op. 118 No. 2', one of those late Brahms pieces in which the composer seems to quietly distil the pained wisdom of a lifetime, is played with melting poetry by Douglas. His deeply poetic reaction to the music is firmly hinged to his feeling for the music’s underlying pulse, its need for continuity and momentum.

The biggest work in the recital is the mighty 'Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel', a single 27-minute span requiring hands of steel and tremendous stamina, both mental and physical. Douglas’s is a triumphant interpretation, full of fire and character. It culminates in a volcanic traversal of the concluding fugue, a fearsomely demanding challenge which he conquers, all guns blazing.

All told, this new Barry Douglas album paints a picture of the pianist in absolutely top form, and in the prime of his artistry. It’s almost certainly his best-ever recording, and marks this Chandos Brahms series out as one to follow avidly in the future.

Brahms: Works for Solo Piano, Volume One is available on Chandos CHAN 10716.