Barry Douglas

Seven Fantasies, Op.116
Variations and Fugue on a theme of Handel, Op.24

Barry Douglas (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 11 May, 2006
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London

Late Brahms is an emotionally remote combination of concise intellect and fey romanticism. Hearing early Brahms immediately after late produces an interesting aesthetic effect – almost as if one were hearing the ingredients separately of what is to become an expert, but almost ascetic, integration. The Handel Variations offer an essentially straightforward in world-view; their foursquare passion easy to follow and understand (though the sheer scale of the work makes it hard to digest, let alone play). Opus 116 is typical of the haunting, regretful and allusive quality of late Brahms.

Surprisingly for a pianist who has made his reputation in expansive, technically demanding Romantic repertoire, this recital (a “BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert”) was generally more successful lyrically than dramatically. From the over-resonant opening of the opening Capriccio of Opus 116, Douglas seemed to have some difficulty bringing clarity and control to Brahms’s occasionally explosive outbursts. At times, such as in piece number 3 or Variation VX of the Handel Variations, discretion became the better part of valour; at other times, such as Variation VIII, the music fell the wrong side of the thin line between controlled acceleration and ‘running away’. The piano tone was beautiful throughout – despite moments of hardness (116/6) or glitches within the filigree texture (as in the early part of the Variations).

And yet there was no shortage of technical expertise: chords were beautifully weighted (especially in 116/6 or in Variations V and VI), the inner parts never neglected (VII) and the octave technique of Variation IV quite sparkling.

Douglas was far more successful in evoking a mood, as with the unheimlich feel of No.4, or the hushed da capo of No.6, or in giving character to the left-hand voices, such as in the trio of No.2: better, then, in Opus 116, at conveying that sense of allusion than in giving a sense of significance. For such a work as the Handel variations, Douglas’ s interpretation was consistent: many-sided and remarkably human; a consciously fallible journey of discovery.

The Fugue, however, was the most impressive feature of the entire recital. Douglas combined bell-like tone at the start, excellent voicing, and a far clearer direction in the virtuoso stretto. All technical question marks were forgotten; nor did what is often a leaden conclusion to the work seem a bar too long.

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