Clandeboye Festival

Barry Douglas, virtuoso pianist and the 'force of nature' behind the festival, dazzles and beguiles the County Down crowd

'He's a force of nature.' That's how Barry Douglas is described to me by one of his fellow performers at this year's Clandeboye Festival, which the Belfast pianist founded ten years ago to nurture the cream of young Irish classical talent.

And, while other players and invited guests contribute royally to the tenth anniversary celebrations, it's Douglas's own Herculean efforts which, inevitably, provide the festival's most abidingly memorable moments.

Central to the programme is Douglas's keynote solo recital in the County Down estate's banqueting hall, halfway through a week in which he has been fully occupied organising, administering, playing, attending concerts, speaking, and mentoring the young musicians who come to Clandeboye to learn their business.

It's a schedule which would undoubtedly drain lesser mortals, yet there's not a whiff of jadedness as Douglas launches into a highly demanding recital mixing Brahms and Schubert with Alban Berg's 'Sonata' Douglas's Schubert is dark and ruminative, his huge technique enabling not only extremes of loud and soft to be examined in the music, but every nuance in between.

The three Impromptus Douglas plays emerge as searching spiritual examinations, and whet the appetite for the recording of Schubert's complete piano music, which he commences next year with the Chandos company.

Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy will be among the first works recorded, and Douglas gives a blistering account of it in his Clandeboye recital. This is one of the key documents of Romantic pianism, and Douglas nails its heady mix of trepidation and propulsive existential energy with clinical exactitude.

The lyric sections melt with tenderness, the horrendously difficult closing fugue has burning intensity and conviction. By any standards, Douglas's is a towering interpretation of this masterwork.

Douglas has already released one outstanding volume in his parallel recording for Chandos of Brahms's complete piano music. At Clandeboye he showcases a further clutch of shorter pieces (two Ballades, a Rhapsodie and an Intermezzo) which will doubtless feature in the second instalment.

Douglas's attunement to Brahms's acutely sensitive, mercurial inner world seems total, the music passing through him with an ease and naturalness making these allusive, frequently ambivalent compositions perfectly transparent to listeners.

The Berg Sonata's combination of elliptical concision and sporadic, late Romantic effulgences also suits Douglas perfectly. His account of it is markedly more yearning and expressive than the recording he made for RCA two decades ago. It would be worth re-doing it.

Douglas finishes the week with a brace of concerts conducting his Camerata Ireland orchestra. The first, 'A Night at the Opera', is an innovation for the festival, featuring Irish singers Ailish Tynan and Sharon Carty in a warmly received programme of arias by Mozart, Monteverdi and Puccini, among others.

Saturday brings the 'Festival Gala Finale', and sees Douglas back at the piano, playing Beethoven's mighty Emperor Concerto, while at the same time directing the Camerata players in their accompaniment.

The work's rarely done without a conductor, and it's a tall order. But the extra levels of attention Douglas elicits from the players by sheer force of his musical personality deliver a performance rich in lyrical expression (the slow movement is gorgeous), yet also full of the 'leaping delight' TS Eliot writes of in another context.

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony closes the concert. It leaps and bounds with rhythmic energy, rising to a furiously charged peroration in the adrenalin-powered finale.

Douglas divides the violins right and left of the conductor's podium, clarifying the rapier-like thrusts and parries Beethoven writes for first and seconds, and providing an extra element of visual drama absent in the more conventional all-left layout.

It's another hugely committed performance, rightly drawing sustained applause from a capacity marquee audience. It brings the curtain down triumphantly on Clandeboye 2012, an event packed with imaginative, eclectic programming, and world-class musicianship.

Barry Douglas, meanwhile, is already planning next year's festival, preparing for further solo recordings, and for Camerata Ireland's major tour of South America in the autumn. 'A force of nature'? I think that just about describes it.

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