BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts – Beethoven Piano Sonatas – 12: Barry Douglas [Op.79 & Hammerklavier]

Piano Sonata No.25 in G, Op.79
Piano Sonata No.29 in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)

Barry Douglas (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 24 November, 2011
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London

Barry Douglas. Photograph: www.barry-douglas.comAt the beginning of September Barry Douglas started off the BBC Radio 3/LSO St Luke’s Beethoven series in B flat and rounded it off eleven weeks later in the same key, with Opus 106. Douglas’s pragmatic stage manner hardly prepares you for his formidable technical powers and his natural feel for the originality of Beethoven’s flexible forms, and he played the ‘Hammerklavier’ with impressive clarity and, in this finger-defying work, unclouded accuracy. Reams have been written about the composer’s unreasonable metronome markings in this sonata, and, by the end, Douglas’s choice of tempo for the first movement sounded too steady for the tension written into the music. Some passages were full of insight, though – the first-movement exposition repeat had a shade more assertiveness that paved the way for a decisively argued central section, which in turn seemed to have one eye on the fiendish contrapuntalism of the fugal finale – but the music’s explosive, volatile grandeur wasn’t always in the frame. Paradoxically, there was a thrilling combination of control and urgency in the last movement, Douglas articulating his enthrallment to the most uncompromising music Beethoven wrote for the piano. In the slow movement, Douglas tactfully imprinted those hooks that reel the listener into its extended meditation, allowing the music to unfold in all its epic simplicity. Barry Douglas has a multi-grade range of colour and attack at his disposal, which made parts of the ‘Hammerklavier’ especially revealing. And the beguiling mix of humour and affection he brought to the little Opus 79 sonata was all part of his approach to Beethoven, poise and inquisitiveness balanced with a robust, involved enjoyment.

In a series that has been about the piano, it was right that it closed with this triumphalist celebration of the instrument. It’s been a particularly satisfying cycle, with numerous pianists raising high the flag of Beethoven’s superhuman achievement. The cycle starts again on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday December 6, the ‘Hammerklavier’ bracing us for the imminent arrival of Christmas. Apart from Douglas’s excellent recitals, I’m particularly looking forward to hearing again Shai Wosner’s two contributions – his Opus 7 was outstanding – and Nicholas Angelich’s first recital memorably caught the character, scale and range of three very different sonatas. I wasn’t particularly in sympathy with Khatia Buniatishvili’s mane-tossing approach to the ‘Appassionata’, but Elisabeth Leonskaja’s two concerts should not be missed, for her visionary Opus 111 and the extraordinarily powerful and sympathetic approach to the ‘Pathétique’. This series’ lunchtime format made each sonata much more thoroughly assimilated. From the point of view of symmetry, it was a pity that a series starting in a late-summer heat-wave didn’t close with a wintry snowstorm, but you can’t have everything – and those glimpses of the reality you could see going on outside LSO St Luke’s gave the other, very different reality unfolding inside Jerwood Hall an unusually strong focus. Reviews to the eleven reviews linked to below.

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