Last year I greatly enjoyed the first volume of
Barry Douglas’s projected cycle of the solo piano music of Brahms
and I’m glad that it has been followed fairly closely by Volume
Two. As before Douglas includes a substantial work - last time it was
the Handel Variations - and a selection of shorter pieces. I still regret
that he’s breaking up Brahms’s collections of short pieces,
Op. 10 and Opp. 116-119. That means that collectors can’t conveniently
access Douglas’s performances of, say, Op. 10 on the same disc
but there we are; that particular die is obviously cast.
The present programme is dominated by the mighty Third Piano Sonata.
In his excellent notes Calum MacDonald speculates that this work may
have been written as a response and antithesis to the Liszt B minor
Sonata, which Brahms had heard Liszt play not long before he composed
this sonata. The scale and ambition of the Third Sonata is such that
I think this is a very plausible suggestion. The huge first movement
is highly Romantic and ranges through several moods. Following in the
score I noted several occasions when Barry Douglas eased back the tempo
though such changes were not marked, at least not in my edition. However,
I make that point not
as a criticism because it seems to me that
these are entirely justifiable and convincing interpretative decisions
and they all seem to work very well. The development section is played
with no little passion, whether the music is loud or soft, and this
seems highly appropriate to the music. Douglas combines strength and
expressiveness in what I think is a commanding reading of this movement.
He’s poised and expressive in the songful Andante which, to be
honest, comes as refreshment for the listener after the turbulent and
big first movement. Near the close Barry Douglas offers much serene
playing in the Andante molto
. The Scherzo is exciting and propulsive
in his hands though there’s grace in the trio. The second slow
movement in this five-movement work is entitled ‘Intermezzo’.
That title often suggests music that is light and easeful but this movement
doesn’t fall into this category. In fact Brahms added the word
‘Rückblick’ to the title, which is translated in the
notes as ‘a backward glance’. It’s a strange, probing
composition and the bass demi-semiquavers suggest a funeral march. Barry
Douglas is very fine indeed in this movement. The finale begins dramatically
and thereafter describes a variety of moods, including an important
chorale-like episode. This movement is an ingenious piece of no little
compositional virtuosity. It calls also for pianistic virtuosity and
Barry Douglas seems to me to meet all these demands. His is a compelling
and highly impressive account of the whole sonata.
Having written three piano sonatas between 1851 and 1853 Brahms never
returned to the form, preferring instead either variation form or small-scale
individual pieces, albeit grouped into sets, when writing for the solo
piano. Perhaps, as Calum MacDonald suggests, he had said all he wanted
to say in sonata form when it came to solo piano music.
Most of the rest of Barry Douglas’s programme comes from those
late sets of pieces that comprise Opp. 116-119. He does, however, include
another two of the four Ballades, Op. 10 - Op. 10/4 was included in
Volume 1. Like the fourth movement of the Sonata, Op. 10/3 carries the
title ‘Intermezzo’ and once again it may be felt to be something
of a misnomer for the piece opens with music that is restlessly energetic.
The piece has a tripartite form with a lighter trio which achieves an
almost ghostly end in this performance. That’s ideal because the
following reprise of the opening material is much more subdued in volume.
Like the sonata movement it’s a strange piece - Schumann told
Brahms that he found it ‘demonic’ - and Barry Douglas plays
it with fine imagination.
His selection also includes the lyrical Op. 116/6, which he plays with
excellent feeling. I also liked his way with Op. 117/2. This contains
a good deal of liquid, graceful music though the pianist also has to
bring out the inner strength that’s in the music at times. There’s
both delicacy and depth in Barry Douglas’s playing. By contrast
Op. 118/3 is, for much of the time, bolder and stronger in tone and
Douglas gives it excellent rhythmical energy. The central section moves
into calmer waters - via a slightly surprising key change - and this
is another place in this recital where the pianist’s lyrical strengths
This is another very fine Brahms recital from Barry Douglas. He seems
to me to have the measure of the music, whether Brahms is in robust
or autumnal mood, and it goes without saying that he has the full technical
range to enable him to master the pianistic challenges as well as the
interpretative ones. The recording was made in the same venue as Volume
1 and, I suspect, using the same Steinway. The recorded sound - and
the instrument - seem ideally suited to this music. As I said earlier,
the notes are excellent.
With two volumes now under his belt I think it can safely be said that
this is shaping up to be an excellent survey of the Brahms solo piano
music and I hope the next instalment will be with us soon.