Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Works for Solo Piano - Volume One
Rhapsody, Op 79, No 1 [9:33]
Intermezzo, Op. 116, No 4 [4:18]
Intermezzo, Op. 118, No 2 [6:07]
Capriccio, Op. 116, No 1 [2:22]
Intermezzo, Op. 117, No 1 [5:09]
Rhapsody, Op 79, No 2 [6:25]
Romance, Op. 118, No 5 [3:36]
Capriccio, Op. 116, No 7 [[2:21]
Ballade, Op. 10, No 4 [7:15]
Capriccio, Op. 116, No 3 [3:25]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24 (1861) [26:54]
Barry Douglas (piano)
rec. 10-11 November 2011, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10716 [77:38]
 
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I believe that Barry Douglas has recently become an exclusively-contracted Chandos artist. The first fruit of the new relationship is this Brahms disc, which Iím delighted to see is described as Volume One in a projected series. If Douglas plans to record all the Brahms solo piano music and subsequent releases match the standard of this disc then it will be a notable addition to the Brahms discography.
 
The one regret I have over this disc is that Douglas has dipped in to several of Brahmsís collections of pieces. Thus we get only four of the seven pieces in Op. 116, two of the six pieces that form Op. 118 and just one of the three Intermezzos that make up Op. 117. Also, just one of the four Ballades, Op 10 is included here. Iím sure that the reason for this programming is that Mr Douglas wanted to present a varied selection of pieces and that in itself is welcome but it will mean that, once his series is complete, anyone wanting to hear, say, Op. 118 complete will have to play more than one CD. Thatís a pity but, in fairness, itís the only point of criticism that I could level at this disc.
 
The performances on this disc indicate that Barry Douglas is a Brahms interpreter of some stature. His readings of the Rhapsodies Op. 79 are very fine. In the first he projects powerfully the often-turbulent agitato music but when the music relaxes Douglas is just as convincing Ė the B major episode marked molto dolce espressivo (3:54) is beautifully done; here, as elsewhere in the recital, his use of subtle, very natural rubato is most impressive. The second Rhapsody is a passionate piece and, in a tremendous performance, the triplet-dominated second subject is delivered imaginatively and excitingly.
 
I loved the reading of Op 117 No 1. This bewitching lullaby is played with the utmost sensitivity. Just as pleasing is the performance of Op. 118 No 2. This is, perhaps, my favourite among Brahmsís piano pieces. The marking is Andante teneramente and in an immaculate performance Douglas really does bring out the Ďtenderlyí aspect of that marking. His playing is thoughtful and caring. Heís also excellent in the varying moods of the selection from Op. 116. In Op. 116 No 1, where Brahms makes imaginative use of rhythmic irregularities, Douglas offers playing that is surging and strongly energetic. Yet in Op. 116 No 4 Ė which, oddly, is the only piece not specifically mentioned in Calum MacDonaldís very good note Ė Douglas is fully alive to the searching, rarefied quality of the music.
 
The climax of the recital is the magnificent Handel Variations. Most of the twenty-five variations are quite brief and sometimes the variations are, in essence, paired in that the style or mood of one variation is carried over into its successor Ė for example numbers 7 and 8 and numbers 11 and 12. As well as the manifold technical challenges that Brahms sets for the pianist there is an additional challenge in that often the soloist is required quickly to change course, as it were, between one variation and a succeeding one in a different style. I think Barry Douglasís reading of this work is very fine indeed and heís adept at responding to the quick mood changes. Thus, for example, his playing has the necessary delicacy in Variation I and a few minutes later he brings out the grandeur of Variation IX. As in the shorter pieces, he shows an instinctive feel for rubato, so important in Brahmsís lyrical passages. Only once did I raise an eyebrow very slightly. Variation XIX is marked Leggiero e vivace and I didnít really get that from Douglasís playing; the music seemed just a bit slow and insufficiently light. When I compared Garrick Ohlssonís very fine account of the work (review) at this point I was a little surprised to find that Ohlssonís tempo is almost identical but where he scores over Barry Douglas, I think, is by imparting more vitality into the rhythm. However, this is a pretty minor point in the context of Douglasís very convincing traversal of the variations. Come the fugue (from 21:37), Douglas starts the passage fairly modestly, as Brahms intends, and then as the complexity of the argument increases he builds the music Ė and the excitement Ė in a masterly fashion. In the Handel Variations Brahms takes us on a long and eventful musical journey and throughout that journey Barry Douglas is a reliable and perceptive guide.
 
These performances are played on a Steinway piano. The Chandos engineers have recorded the instrument very well. The notes by Calum MacDonald are very helpful.
 
The pianist contributes a short personal note in the booklet and he concludes it by saying of Brahmsís piano music ďI treasure every phrase. I love every note.Ē Thatís just how it comes across in these splendid performances. The prospect of exploring Brahmsís solo piano music with Barry Douglas is an exciting one and I look forward greatly to further instalments.
 
John Quinn
 
An excellent start to a projected cycle of the complete solo piano music of Brahms.