Barry Douglas's thunderously authoritative interpretation of the Austrian composer's final piano sonata

There is been a growing trend in recent decades for concert pianists to view Franz Schubert’s last piano sonata, completed just three months before he died aged 31 in 1828, as a kind of final will and testament musically, and to treat it with something approaching religious awe and reverence.

Funereal tempos in the opening two movements can be the consequence, as though the only message of the piece is death’s proximity, and intimations of the other-worldly spiritual realm the syphilitic, seriously ill composer was about to enter.

That approach can work up to a point, but it can easily drain the inner energy and forward momentum from the sonata – the sense that it’s the work of a composer still very much alive and writing, in fact at the absolute peak of his game compositionally.

Belfast pianist Barry Douglas’s new recording of the B-flat major sonata, Schubert: Works for Solo Piano, restores that feeling of living, artistic purpose which compelled Schubert to write the piece, and the vital creative energies which made it one of the great masterpieces of piano literature.

Douglas’s traversal of the long opening movement (he rightly repeats the exposition) lacks nothing in poetry – try, for example, the poignant sense of disorientation and uncertainty he finds at the beginning of the development section.

Crucially, however, this is leavened by the sense that the music is actually going somewhere, rather than hanging disembodied in the ether. There is little tempo variation in Douglas’s reading of Schubert’s ‘Molto moderato’ marking, and none of the self-indulgence which tempts lesser players to pull the shape of the music around for so-called ‘expressive’ purposes.

What emerges instead is an uncommonly satisfying account of the movement’s narrative, poised beautifully between the composer’s undoubted awareness of his own mortality, and the hope and optimism he retains, if fitfully, for new life and new experiences.

Because the sonata’s first two movements are not over-extended, the third and fourth seem more naturally in proportion with the rest of the work than is sometimes the case, and yield many moments of fresh illumination in Douglas’s piercingly clear-sighted interpretation.

The jabbing, crab-like left-hand accompaniment in the Trio, for instance, is specially vivid in its mawkish implications, while the swirling outbursts which punctuate the rondo finale mingle the physical thrill of hearing them so well executed with the edge of anxiety that the composer surely intended.

Schubert’s ‘Wanderer Fantasy’ is the other main item in the recital, and has fewer purely interpretive problems associated with it. Technically, however, it’s a far more difficult piece, indeed one of the most demanding in the entire piano repertoire.

That’s meat and drink to Douglas, whose technique has always been, and remains that of a top-class virtuoso. His is a properly tumultuous reading of the work, thunderously authoritative while always maintaining the implacably rock-solid sense of rhythm you need, if the ‘Wanderer’’s four-part structure is to be held together convincingly.

The final section, where the heaping of climax upon climax puts extreme demands upon the player, is specially powerful, Douglas’s dynamism and steely finger-energy propelling the music onward to a thrilling, triumphant conclusion.

This highly stimulating disc, enhanced further by Brian Newbould’s excellent essay in the booklet, is the first in a series of Schubert’s complete solo piano music which Douglas is recording on the Chandos label, for whom he has already embarked on a comprehensive Brahms series.

It shows Northern Ireland's foremost pianist in sovereign form artistically, reinvigorating these great works of Schubert’s maturity, and presenting them with a virility and sensitivity which more than ever hammer home the truth of the epitaph written on his tombstone, by the Austrian writer Franz Grillparzer: ‘Music buried here a rich legacy, but many even more beautiful hopes.’

He died too young, and had so much more left in him to give to the future, had he survived to see it.

Schubert: Works for Solo Piano is out now.