Exemplary Range, Color and Technique in Barry Douglas’ Marvelous Recital

24/11/2017

Schubert, Brahms, Mussorgsky: Barry Douglas (piano), Rothenberg Hall, The Huntington, San Marino, 19.11.2017. (DLD)

Schubert – Impromptu No.1 in C minor Op.90; Fantasie in C major Op.15 ‘Wanderer Fantasy’
Brahms – Three Intermezzi Op.117
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition

I’ve heard Barry Douglas in live performance twice in the last five years, and both times came away with the same two thoughts: he is one of the singularly great pianists of his generation; and why isn’t he here in Southern California more often? We’re all aware of pianists who receive greater press attention, often for reasons unrelated to musicianship. Barry Douglas, on the other hand, is a consummate artist who seems to appear only here and there in the United States. For me, it has been at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall and Rothenberg Hall on the grounds of the wondrous Huntington. On both occasions, Douglas left the audience grateful for the opportunity to hear him and marveling at the technique and the poetry.

This program opened with the first of the four great Impromptus of Schubert’s Opus 90 series. Beginning with a widely-spaced, bare, fortissimo G in both hands – attention, audience! – the Impromptu heads directly to the first theme. Schubert is a melodist without peer, and this melody quickly becomes a sort of walk or march that takes the listener on a rigorous stroll through the intellectual and emotional landscape of his world. Douglas played it as a reader might intone a long narrative poem (say, Keats’ ‘Eve of St. Agnes’): a substantial and varied musical narrative with the internal ache and external angst of subtle human emotions. There’s a rare accented ‘augmented’ chord – the only way I know how to describe this triad that occurs towards the end of several of the melody’s phrases – and I always feel its unresolved longing in my chest. This was the world of Schubert perfectly delivered, without fussiness, no over-emoting, beautifully balanced, and it augured well for what was to follow.

What did follow were the equally miraculous Three Intermezzi by Johannes Brahms, one of multiple sets of published piano pieces – intermezzi, ballades, romances, capriccios, and even a rhapsody – that make up the central core of his autumnal piano repertory. Douglas delivered all three with the proper mix of resignation and warmth these pieces deserve. All were personal and dignified, but I especially responded to the hushed mystery that pervades the Intermezzo No.2 in B flat, the differing resolutions to its phrases and its dark, pianissimo conclusion. The narrative of the different states of emotion suit this pianist well.

The first part of the concert ended with Douglas’ stunning rendition of  Schubert’s artistic and technical challenge, the ‘Wanderer Fantasy’, written in the same time period as his Symphony No.8. Though officially in four separate movements, it is played without a break and tests every aspect of a performer’s artistry. The challenge was tossed off by Douglas with apparent ease: his playing never flagged, and the blistering Presto section was played with authority and unforced novelty. These are long pieces with much repetition, and I couldn’t help but think that finding the distinctive nuance and detail in them has to be one of the great challenges for a pianist. It was splendid.

The second half of the program was given over to one massive work: Pictures at an Exhibition. It is Mussorgsky’s major piano composition, and one of the most original and demanding treasures in the piano repertory. The piece is a musical visualization of a number of sketches and watercolors by Viktor Hartmann, presented in sonic form by the composer during a leisurely stroll through the gallery. Most of the visual source material has been lost, but for the imaginative listener that shouldn’t be a problem.

Douglas’ conception included the highly picturesque aspects of these pieces – the ballet of the unhatched chicks, a lantern shown on the Paris catacombs, the monumental Bogatyr Gates, a clumsy and deformed gnome lurching through the streets – with several of these musical renditions cordoned off by the ‘Promenade’ theme, representing someone, perhaps Mussorgsky himself, walking through the exhibition. The conclusion, a musical paean to those great gates, was thundering and overpowering, a composition within the composition, and the audience did not hesitate in responding with equally thunderous applause.

A performance of this type needs an encore, something to calm the sound waves crashing against the cochlea in all those inner ears, and Douglas answered with his own piano arrangement of ‘My Lagan Love’, a charming traditional Irish song. It was a lovely way to close this fabulous recital.

Douglas has recorded most of this material with Chandos Records, an audiophile’s paradiso if ever there were one. The recordings are not arranged in strict chronological or categorical divisions (i.e., complete sonatas, ballades, intermezzi, etc.), but are organized in a manner that resembles a virtual piano recital on disc.

Rarely is such musical intelligence and taste as clearly on display as it was in Barry Douglas’ afternoon recital at The Huntington. Here’s hoping it’s not too long till the next.

Douglas Dutton

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