Barry Douglas has always been his own man, an artist with a generous heart who thinks and plays big. His mixture of the darkly brooding and the urgently fiery makes for a temperament to conjure with: he can paint still waters, ravish shadows, and scale the Eiger. A performance of Brahms’s Piano Quintet from his early days, with the Brodsky Quartet, remains comfortably the finest I'm ever likely to hear in a concert-hall – a life-changing encounter.
Celtic bard meeting Viennese poet, the dreamer and the storyteller, makes this second volume of Douglas’s Schubert edition for Chandos as individually nuanced as anything in his Beethoven and Brahms outings. In the Impromptus (the first cycle) he casts his net wide and bold. He doesn't dwell on the sentimental or cosy. In his hands – enhanced to an extent by a somewhat bright (even hard) 2005 Steinway and Jonathan Cooper's physically imagined recording, close yet distant – the focus is on music for an iron-framed beast, not the delicate, luminous maidens of Schubert's day. Yes, you'll find beauty and singing lines, manly intimacy, in the G-flat (No 3), but little to suggest boudoir longueur or perfumed vistas. The C-minor (No.1), never an easy piece to pace or hold together, has to be the triumph of the set. Douglas crafts a magnificent 'northern' tone-poem, unleashing all variety of orchestral and theatrical implications, the tension and release palpable.
With the E-flat (No.2) pianists typically purl and harangue – prettifying the triplet runs, harshening the 'Hungarian' offsets. Douglas favours a less histrionic approach, the runs articulated as firmly as the episodes are driven home. The toughness of argument, the determination of gesture, prompts one to see Schubert in a fresh light. Comparably, the A-flat closing the cycle is no fragile vase but an epic chandelier of crystals and storms, the two final chords defiantly resolute in their arrival. What you see in the notes is what you get – pristine, sinewy finger-work ensuring voiced clarity across the registers. This is no school-room apology, no shyly stammered old-world love letter, but a sweeping tale of étude and lied, of cascading waterfalls and towering cathedrals of sound thundered, Bruckner-like, out of the simplest of base harmonies. Glorious!
The A-major Sonata (1828), here forty-three minutes, pursues a symphonic trajectory, the expansive first movement (development not least) transformed into a Giant's Causeway of basaltic blocks, now juxtaposed, now grinding in their clashes, now washed in tides of arpeggio, murmurs of lyrical repose lurking between the cracks like so many blooms of edelweiss. The span, the onward momentum, the marriage of mind and matter, is breathtaking. The Andantino – differently journeying the F-sharp-minor roads of Beethoven's ‘Hammerklavier’ – is declaimed with the eloquence and awe of a heroic Shakespearean actor. Douglas views it somewhere between cortège, grand opera and gondellied, the violent anguish of the climax shorn of all familiar language, the contrasts of grave minor and consoling major harmonies, the bleak closing octave unisons stripped of mode, placed with a starkness, a tactile black-and-whiteness, a pain of startling, unyielding modernity, as harsh and experiential as the screams of war Christoph Eschenbach once famously delineated or the human isolation Radu Lupu (appreciably faster) sensed – yet spheres removed. One cannot but be affected.
Superficially, the Scherzo is a brilliantly drilled cut-glass showpiece. Look deeper though and other dramas unfold, the Trio section (like that of Douglas’s earlier B-flat Sonata, D960) sowing disquieting unease. Sporadic sunshine is glimpsed in the Finale, but it's the raging battles, the flung rocks, the vision of Schubert in turbulent mood tussling as mightily as Beethoven with his material, hewing marbled columns out of suddenly unforgiving landscapes, that remain most forcefully before us. Magisterial.