All the ingredients of great Schubert playing from Douglas at Clandeboye Festival 2022  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Clandeboye Festival 2022 [2] – Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Schubert: Barry Douglas (piano). Clandeboye Estate, County Down, Northern Ireland, 25.8.2022. (RB)

Barry Douglas © Benjamin Ealovega

Schubert – Four Impromptus, Op.142
Tchaikovsky: December: Christmas from The Seasons Op.37b; Valse Sentimentale from Six Pieces for Piano, Op.51; Dance caractéristique, Op.72
Beethoven – Sonata No.23 in F Minor, Op.57 ‘Appassionata’

Barry Douglas is currently in the process of recording the complete solo piano music of Schubert for Chandos. He has recorded the first set of impromptus (Op.90) to much critical acclaim but he has not to my knowledge recorded the second set. It is this set with which he chose to open this recital. Schubert wrote these works in 1827 towards the end of his short and tragic life. The first and last pieces in the set are both in the key of F minor which has led some commentators to argue that the second set of impromptus are a sonata in disguise, although others disagree.

Douglas brought all the ingredients of great Schubert playing to this performance including supreme lyricism, expressive phrasing, rich tone colours and a wide and finely calibrated range of dynamics. The first impromptu opened in an arresting way with Douglas commanding attention from the audience from the outset. He played with enormous freedom and sustained the melodic line beautifully against Schubert’s rustling semiquavers. Douglas injected a powerful sense of drama into the piece and infused the harmonic twists and turns with rich tone colours. In doing so he succeeded in transforming the work into a wonderful miniature tone poem. The second impromptu in A flat opened with perfectly weighted chords and strong dynamic contrasts. Douglas adopted a relatively slow tempo for the opening section and the mood was deliberate and earnest. I would have liked to hear more of Schubert’s Viennese charm and with the dance elements more to the fore. The trio section with its rippling triplets was exquisitely executed.

Much of the playing in the third impromptu in B flat was delightful and the variations were beautifully characterised. I particularly enjoyed the playful, coquettish character which Douglas brought to the final variation with its dizzying scales. While there was much to admire here, I wondered if there was scope to mine more of the poetry e.g. in the modulations in the B flat minor variation.  Douglas’s performance of the final F minor Impromptu was exceptional and certainly among the best I have heard. He brought a spiky, playful quality to the opening section with its pointed accents and cross rhythms. The passagework was executed with brilliance but also in a very musical way with clever use of pedal. Douglas brought a sense of architectural coherence to a work which can sometimes sound fragmented thereby helping to navigate our way through increasingly remote keys. A dramatic coda brought the set to a thrilling conclusion.

The three pieces by Tchaikovsky in the middle part of the recital are all short salon pieces written over the course of the composer’s life. The Seasons is regularly performed and Rachmaninov often performed November’s ‘Troika’ as an encore. Douglas gave a stylish performance of all three pieces and conjured orchestral effects and tone colours from his Steinway.

Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ Sonata is one of his most famous middle period sonatas. It was written around the same time as Fidelio and there are some parallels with the dungeon scene in that opera which is also in the key of F minor. Douglas’s performance of the opening movement was powerful and dramatic and full of the pathos and anguish this music requires. The startling dynamic contrasts were handled brilliantly: the quieter sections with the four-note fate motif were full of foreboding while the louder sections pulsated with rhythmic energy. The Andante con moto second movement had a pleasing sense of Classical architecture with close attention paid to phrasing and tempo relationships. Douglas did a great job whipping up the dark whirling turbulence of the finale and the coda was an adrenaline fuelled virtuoso tour de force.

The audience responded with a standing ovation and Douglas performed Brahms’s Intermezzo Op.116 No.4 as an encore.

Robert Beattie            

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