BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts – Beethoven Piano Sonatas – 3: Barry Douglas [Opuses 27/1, 90 & 101]

Sonata quasi una fantasia in E flat, Op.27/1
Piano Sonata No.27 in E minor, Op.90
Piano Sonata No.28 in A, Op.101

Barry Douglas (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 22 September, 2011
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London

Barry Douglas. Photograph: www.barry-douglas.comThe three piano sonatas in Barry Douglas’s second contribution to BBC Radio 3’s Beethoven series are all transitional works, the one entitled Quasi una fantasia coming at the start of Beethoven’s experiments with form, and the E minor and A major paving the way in to the extraordinary riches and extremes of expression of the last sonatas. All three are relatively short, with the slow movements leaving the listener yearning for more.

The E flat Sonata may not be as well-known as its companion, the so-called ‘Moonlight’, which sounds positively conventional by comparison. Barry Douglas’s way of sliding into the opening was magical, as though we were picking up on a conversation already in progress, and his nudging the music into something more defined was done with the utmost tact. You can hear Douglas, a romantic-biased pianist, identifying with the barely contained expressivity of the stormy emotion of the second section, and he is a master at revealing how Beethoven plays with and extends the audience’s powers of musical memory. There’s also innocence in this sonata, which Douglas captured with ego-free grace.

Nearly fourteen years separate it from Opus 90, by which time Beethoven was becoming increasingly deaf. Douglas balanced the narrative and lyrical needs of its two movements with great discretion, and handled the flux of tenderness, assertion, yielding and rumination with gentle but firm control. His intuitive lyricism made the song-like dialogue of the second movement almost visual in its unfolding flow. This natural ease of expression continued in Opus 101, with the summery introduction full of rhythmic ambiguities and subtleties of phrasing, the angular march-scherzo anticipating Schumann, and the finale giving us a foretaste of the structural rigour and virtuoso heroics of the ‘Hammerklavier’.

Any cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas is bound to promulgate their reputation as a keystone of music’s Holy Writ. Barry Douglas leaves us in no doubt of their stature, but he also has an affinity with the different inner-world of each one, expressed in playing of great candour, inquisitiveness and pragmatic virtuosity. His ‘Hammerklavier’ on November 24 should be quite something.

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