Pianist Barry Douglas in Conversation with Robert Beattie

Pianist Barry Douglas in Conversation with Robert Beattie

Barry Douglas (c) Eugene Langan

I grew up in Belfast in the 1960’s and 1970’s and I first came across Barry Douglas when I was in my teens.  In the music department of the grammar school I attended everyone suddenly started to talk about this amazingly talented 17-year old pianist from Belfast who had just given a stunning performance of the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto with the Ulster Orchestra with Tamás Vásáry in attendance.  Barry studied with Bertram Jones who was responsible for training a long line of esteemed pianists at the School of Music in Belfast, and then with Felicitas LeWinter who was a pupil of Emil von Sauer.  When he left Methody (one of the leading grammar schools in Belfast) he went to the Royal College of Music where he studied with the excellent John Barstow and then privately with Maria Curcio.  He won a bronze medal at the Van Cliburn competition in 1985 and then, in the following year, the gold medal at the Tchaikovsky International Piano competition – Barry was the first non-Russian since Van Cliburn to win the gold medal and first prize outright.  Since winning the competition, Barry has performed in the world’s leading concert halls and has released a series of critically acclaimed recordings focusing particularly on Russian piano music and the music of Beethoven.

More recently Barry has devoted a lot of his considerable creative energy to forming Camerata Ireland – an orchestra made up of leading musicians from across Ireland – which he conducts; the orchestra is about to embark on a tour of Mexico and China.  He is the artistic director of the Clandeboye Festival which is close to the lively seaside town of Bangor in CountyDown.  Barry has also embarked on two monumental projects to record the complete piano music of Brahms and Schubert.  The first two discs of Brahms’ piano music have been released to great critical acclaim (review review).  I met him in a hotel just off the Bayswater Road and we spoke about his forthcoming performing and recording projects and his activities with Camerata Ireland and the Clandeboye Festival.

Robert Beattie. You studied with a long line of distinguished teachers, including Felicitas LeWinter, John Barstow and Maria Curcio.  Can you tell us how they influenced your career?

Barry Douglas I also had lessons with Andor Foldes and Alfred Brendel.  All of my teachers had a lot to offer in terms of advice about technique and performing.  I had lessons with Felicitas LeWinter when I was 16 and she really helped to build my technique.  Maria Curcio is particularly renowned as a teacher and had a long line of esteemed students including Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu, Mitsuko Uchida and Leon Fleisher.

RB Maria Curcio had a fascinating life before she started to work as a teacher, didn’t she?

BD Yes, indeed – she lived in Holland during the Second World War with her husband, Peter Diamand, who was Jewish.  Diamand was arrested by the Nazis and Maria went to them to point out that they had made an administrative error and he was released as a result.  The two of them managed to escape and went into hiding but they suffered from cramped conditions and inadequate food as a result of which Maria contracted TB.  Unfortunately, that put an end to her career as a concert soloist – there is only one extant recording of her performing with Schwarzkopf and Klemperer.  When she first came to the UK she was put up by Marion Thorpe and lived one street away from here.  Marion and Fanny Waterman were the co-founders of the Leeds International Piano Competition.

RB You have recently been doing a lot of conducting, particularly with Camerata Ireland.  Can you say how you made the transition from playing the piano into conducting and how you approach your conducting activities?

BD I conducted a choir when I was 12 and I have conducted chamber ensembles and small orchestras since my mid-teens.  I principally worked as a pianist in the early part of my career but I was able to draw on the skills I had already acquired in my teens when I decided to spend more of my time on conducting.  I still regard myself primarily as a pianist but in more general terms I see myself as a musician.  The piano and the orchestra are both instruments and you need to apply different skills sets to each.  When you work as a conductor, it is important for you to understand the orchestra and you need to apply different skills when you are preparing for concerts and rehearsals. However, the ultimate goal is the same in both cases, which is to make music.  It is important to have credibility with the orchestra and to convince them of your interpretation of the music.

RB You founded Camerata Ireland in 1999 – can you say what lead you to create this new orchestra?

BD There were three main reasons.  Firstly, I was aware that many musicians were leaving Ireland to seek opportunities abroad and I wanted to create a forum for the best musical talent, both north and south of the border.  Secondly, a lot of progress had been made in Northern Ireland through the Irish peace process and I thought it was important for the arts in general, and music in particular, to play its part in influencing and changing society by underlining the links and commonalities between the north and south of Ireland.  Thirdly, with a few notable exceptions, such as Jimmy Galway, Ireland was not known for classical music and I wanted to build an orchestra made up of the most talented players which could tour the world and showcase the artistic talents Ireland has to offer.

Camerata Ireland is all about nurturing new talent.  We invite established musicians to work intensively with younger players at the Clandeboye Festival.  The best of the younger players join the orchestra and in this way there is a natural process through which the orchestra is replenished.  The orchestra have made a number of well received recordings, they have given a number of World premières, including a work by Marc-Anthony Turnage in June and they have travelled the world to critical acclaim.  They also made their debut at the Proms this year and they are about to embark on a tour of Mexico and China.  I am delighted that Camerata Ireland has been awarded the joint patronage of Her Majesty the Queen and the President of Ireland.

RB Can you tell us when the Clandeboye Festival takes place and about the programme for the Festival?

BD The Festival normally takes place in late August and next year it will take place between 18 and 23 August.  It comprises a week of concerts and masterclasses where distinguished international musicians work with talented young players.  The Festival is all about finding and nurturing young talent and exposing the concert-going public in Ireland to high standards of performance.  This year we also used the Festival to showcase other activities in the fields of fashion, theatre and cookery and the actor, Stephen Rea, was one of the participants.

RB You are about to perform the Strauss Burleske at the Barbican (review) – I know you released a recording of this work with Janowski, on which you coupled Burleske with the Reger concerto.  I love the Strauss but I’m not a fan of the Reger concerto, I’m afraid.

BD A lot of people find it difficult as it is quite a dense and heavy work but I think Janowski did an excellent job in keeping the textures very transparent in the recording.  Serkin was a very early exponent of the work.

RB Serkin has also recorded the Strauss Burleske – I was surprised to find so many recordings when I went online by pianists such as Richter, Arrau, Argerich and Gulda.  Are there any recordings you particularly like and what draws you to the work?

BD I have huge respect for all those artists but I prefer to find my own way with the Burleske.  Pianists approach this piece in their own differing and unique ways.  John Lill mentioned to me that Arrau was once asked by a critic why he had introduced a rallentando at a certain point and he replied that Strauss had asked him to!  I love the late Romantic language of the Burleske which is quirky, mischievous, light and sumptuous all at the same time.  The work has Strauss’ unique fingerprints and it’s enormously virtuosic but it’s worth the effort.  I’ll be performing with a hugely talented Danish conductor, Thomas Dausgaard, who I’ve worked with before.   

RB You have embarked on two major projects to record the complete works of Brahms and Schubert.  I love your first two Brahms recordings but with your Brahms cycle, you have decided against playing the shorter piano pieces in complete sets and instead you have mixed them up.  Purists argue against this on the grounds that there are important thematic relationships within the sets.  Can you say why you have taken this approach?


BD There is an argument for playing the shorter piano pieces in complete sets for the reasons you mention.  However, a lot of Brahms’ piano music is not familiar to the general public and I wanted to juxtapose pieces from across the whole of the composer’s creative output in the same way that you would in a recital.  I wanted listeners to sample different types of music from across the composer’s life – almost like a tasting menu – as I thought this would be more thought provoking and interesting, and would allow the audience to see how Brahms’ music changes and evolves over time.  In any case, with all this modern technology, it will be possible to assemble the complete sets if that is what people want to do when the project is complete!

RB You will shortly be undertaking the first of the Schubert recordings.  Which pieces have you chosen to play and why?


BD I will be playing the final piano sonata in B flat, the Wanderer Fantasy and a few of the Liszt song transcriptions including Du Bist die Ruh and Ungeduld.  I thought it was important to showcase some of the composer’s dramatic extremes.  The Wanderer Fantasy is an extrovert, virtuoso work while the sonata in B flat is an introspective but highly charged work full of controlled emotion.  It is almost like a scream within a plastic bag – it is one of the greatest poetic masterpieces for piano.

RB Schubert and Brahms were both interesting in that they did not specifically write pianistic music that falls neatly under the hands.  It is often very awkward to play but both composers are solely focused on creating pure music – how the pianist solves the technical problems is down to them.

BD They both write in a very vocal way for piano and it’s important to think about where to breathe and how to phrase the music.  You have to approach the music in the same way that a singer would approach a score.  It is important to engage with the physicality of the music and for the audience to hear the strain involved in playing certain passages as this is often part of what the composer is trying to convey.  The music can sound facile if, for example, you try to split passages between the hands in order to make them easier.  That is the kind of playing that often characterises bad performances of Beethoven sonatas.

RB I agree, although there are of course some scores that you have to split between the hands, for example some of the pieces in Albeniz’s Iberia.


BD Yes, that’s true.  I don’t think one should be too pedantic about these things.  I think the key thing is to try to convey the composer’s musical intentions.

RB As part of the Brahms project you will be performing and directing both concertos from the keyboard.  One often hears pianists taking a dual playing/conducting role in the Mozart or Beethoven concertos.  How easy it to do this with Brahms where the physical and technical demands are much greater?

BD Ashkenazy was the first person to tell me that it was possible to perform and direct the Brahms D minor concerto from the keyboard and I am very grateful to him for that.  In order to do this you need to plan the interpretation in advance and work with the orchestra’s section leaders.  In the D minor concerto there are blocks of music where the orchestra plays alone and then periods where the piano has the principal role.  Given the way the piece is structured, it is possible, if you are organised, to focus on either conducting or playing at any one time, although there are admittedly difficult sections where both piano and orchestra are very active.  Much of the B flat concerto is like chamber music in that the piano is playing with smaller groups of instruments rather than the full orchestra.  You can rehearse these sections in advance with the relevant ensembles and this should make it possible to play and conduct the piece at the same time.  The key thing in playing/conducting both concertos is advance planning.

I will also be performing some chamber music during the course of the Brahms and Schubert recording cycles but I haven’t decided what yet.  I have recorded the Brahms Piano Quintet before and would like to do it again.  I may also play the Trout Quintet but we still need to decide on all this.

RB Aside from the Brahms and Schubert projects, do you have any other recordings on the horizon and when will you next be performing in London?

BD I will be releasing a recording of my own variations for piano on Irish folk songs very shortly.  Edward Bunting drew together a convention of the various harpists of Ireland in 1792 and I have based my compositions on some of the harp airs dating from that time as well as famous Irish folk melodies such as Carrickfergus.  One of the themes almost sounds like the principal theme of the Goldberg Variations and it lends itself to variation treatment.  I am also writing the music for five of the Scottish Fables translated by Seamus Heaney – I agreed to do this before Seamus’ death and it is a great privilege and honour.

I will be playing some chamber music and music for piano solo at the LSO St Luke’s early next year.  I will be focusing on Brahms and Schubert.

RB Finally, I understand you are visiting Professor of Piano both at the Royal College of Music and at the Dublin Conservatory of Music which is based at the Dublin Institute of Technology.  How much time do you spend teaching and do you have any star students we should be watching out for?

BD I enjoy teaching and I think it’s important to pass on my knowledge to young pianists but unfortunately I don’t have as much time to devote to this as I would like.  There are many gifted and talented young pianists from Northern Ireland but I would rather not mention specific names.