Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Rhapsody Op.79 No.1 (1880) [9.33]
Intermezzo Op.116 No.4 (1891-93) [4.18]
Intermezzo Op.118 No.2 (1891-93) [6.07]
Capriccio Op.116 No.1 (1891-93) [2.22]
Intermezzo Op.117 No.1 (1891-93) [5.09]
Rhapsody Op.79 No.2 (1880) [6.25]
Romance Op.118 No.5 (1891-93) [3.36]
Capriccio Op.116 No.7 (1891-93) [2.21]
Ballade Op.10 No.4 (1854) [7.15]
Capriccio Op.116 No.3 (1891-93) [3.25]
Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel (1861) [26.54]
Barry Douglas (piano)
rec. West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, November 2011
CHANDOS CHAN 10716 [77.38]
Barry Douglas is a former winner of the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition and a very fine exponent of Brahms. He played Brahms’ D minor concerto in the final of the aforementioned competition. It 1999 he founded the Camerata Ireland and since that time a lot of his time and energy appears to have been devoted to conducting. He has not released very many new solo piano recordings. I was delighted to see this Brahms disc which is the first volume of what promises to be a superb and imaginative traversal of Brahms’ solo piano works.
Douglas takes a different approach to Katchen and others in that he decides against playing full sets of the smaller piano pieces and instead offers a selection from different sets across the whole of Brahms’ creative output. He is particularly good at bringing weight and intensity to Brahms and at layering the sound while ensuring the textures do not become unduly thick and leaden.
He begins his recital with the first of the Op.79 rhapsodies where there’s a rich tone and flexible phrasing to bring out the harmonic nuances. In Op.116 No.4 the layering is excellent while the melody is played with infinite sensitivity and is beautifully shaped. Op.118 No.2 is perhaps the most famous of all Brahms’ miniatures and Douglas uses artful rubato to bring out the expressive lyricism while the inner voices are highlighted in a richly coloured way. The octaves in Op.116 No.1 are played with power and authority but without sounding bombastic. Douglas deploys an imaginative range of touch to highlight the wonderful textural changes.
Op.117 No.1 is a lullaby that is very easy to play but pianists somehow find it very difficult to capture its stillness and timeless quality particularly in the harmonically refulgent middle section. Douglas does a very good job but cannot quite match the poetic insight of Lupu. The second of the Op.79 rhapsodies is played with rhythmic vitality and in a very free way that allows the listener to explore the rich harmonies and textures. Douglas presents Op.116 No.7 as a dramatic tone poem with the turbulent semi-quavers dispatched with power and authority. The elegant flow of Op.10 No.4 with its long eloquent lines is perfectly captured and the performance is full of artful articulation.
The recital concludes with Brahms’ Variations and fugue on a theme by Handel which is arguably the composer’s greatest work for piano solo. The performance is full of character and uses all the resources of the modern concert grand to bring out the work’s enormous variety. The theme itself is supremely elegant while the ensuing first variation has a wonderful buoyancy and lightness. The octaves of the fourth variation are robust without being too heavy while the fifth variation is played with delicate expressive warmth. The tenth variation is playful and admirably clear while the wonderful largamente variation is infinitely tender. Variations 14-16 are full of bustling energy with Douglas clearly relishing the interplay and counterpoint. The mighty fugue at the end is played with absolute clarity while the textures remain both opulent and clear. Altogether, this is an outstanding recording of this great work that rivals Katchen and others.
This is superb playing from a great pianist and marks a welcome return to the solo piano repertoire. I look forward to the next few instalments in Douglas’ Brahms cycle.
Robert Beattie
Superb playing from a great pianist … marks a welcome return to the solo piano repertoire.