Barry Douglas at the top of his game in the Liszt Piano Sonata at Clandeboye

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Clandeboye Festival 2023 [2] – Brahms, Schubert, Liszt: Barry Douglas (piano). Clandeboye Estate, Bangor, Northern Ireland, 24.8.2023. (RB)

Barry Douglas

Brahms – Fantasies, Op.116, Nos. 1, IV and VII
Schubert – Piano Sonata in A Minor D845
Liszt – Sonata in B Minor S. 178

Barry Douglas has recently released a series of critically acclaimed recordings for Chandos featuring the complete piano music of Schubert and Brahms. This recital provided an opportunity to listen to a few of those works live. In the second half, Douglas turned his attention to Liszt’s monumental Piano Sonata. As with some of the other concerts in this year’s Clandeboye Festival, the concert hall was full to capacity.

Douglas opened his recital with three of the pieces from Brahms’s set of seven Fantasies, Op.116. The composer wrote these short pieces in 1892 towards the end of his life. The stormy capriccios in the set contrast with the more lyrical intermezzos. Douglas brought weight and intensity to the opening Capriccio in the set, powering through the repeated chords and octaves. The highly lyrical E major Intermezzo blossomed out in a ravishing way with Douglas capturing the autumnal heart of the work. He gave a barnstorming performance of the final Capriccio, varying the textures in a highly imaginative way and treating the audience to dazzling fingerwork before the powerful conclusion.

Schubert’s A minor Piano Sonata, D845 dates from 1825 and it one of three piano sonatas which were published during the composer’s lifetime. It is a large-scale work and marks a significant step towards the composer’s mature piano sonata style. Douglas brought power and authority, as well as textural and dynamic variation to the opening Moderato. This was very much a robust Beethovenian reading of the work with a clear sense of structure throughout and rich orchestral sonorities. Douglas’s approach to the variations of the Andante second movement was delightful. The ornamentation in the second variation was crisply and tastefully executed while the demi-semiquaver runs in the A-flat variation scurried along delightfully. I was not entirely convinced by Douglas’s approach to the Scherzo third movement. Some of the accents were a little heavy handed and this performance did not entirely capture the darting mercurial character of the piece. Douglas did an excellent job in shaping the toccata-like figurations of the finale and he handled Schubert’s intriguing modulations well before driving the work to a close with an adrenaline fuelled coda.

The Liszt B minor Sonata was completed in 1853; it was dedicated to Robert Schumann. It was not universally well received by Liszt’s contemporaries: Clara Schumann referred to it as ‘merely a blind noise’, while Brahms reputedly fell asleep during Liszt’s performance of the work. Nowadays, it is regarded as one of the great staples of the repertoire and many theories exist about a hidden programme for the piece. There are arguments around whether it is influenced by Faust, Dante or Milton’s Paradise Lost or by a combination of all three.

Douglas’s performance of this work was the highlight of the evening. The single staccato notes which open the work were perfectly weighted and prepared the way for the subsequent descent into the abyss. Douglas was fully in command of the demanding virtuoso passagework, and he gave a barnstorming account of the double octave passage. He brought nobility, ardour, passion and an elfin mercurial quality to the opening section and allowed the movement to build in an incendiary way. Douglas’s handling of the Andante second section was exemplary, and I was particularly impressed with the way in which he characterised the ostinato chords and recitative which can sometimes flounder in performance. There were moments of ravishing sensuality in the playing as the relationship between Faust and Gretchen comes into view. The fugato section had a whiff of sulphur before the sonata began to build one last time. The final torrent of octaves was nothing less than a virtuoso tour de force and I am sure had the audience on the edge of their seats. The concluding epilogue moved seamlessly to salvation and transcendence before Mephistopheles had the last word.

This performance was deservedly greeted with a standing ovation. It is marvellous to see Barry Douglas at the top of his game with this performance.

Robert Beattie

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