Review: Barry Douglas (***) and Alissa Firsova (****), Wigmore Hall, London


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The Independent Culture

Brahms wrote all his large-scale piano works at the start of his career, and restricted himself to short pieces thereafter.

But as Gerald Larner observed in his programme note to Barry Douglas’s recital, it was in these short pieces that Brahms conducted his most daring technical experiments, and confided his most intimate thoughts.

‘Even one listener,’ he said protectively of his last pieces, ‘is one too many.’ Moreover, as Douglas demonstrated with the Opus 117 Intermezzi, ‘miniature’ can still mean large-scale in conception: each of these tiny masterpieces conveys a universe of feeling.

The first, inspired by the Scottish folk song ‘Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament’, had a notably clean lyrical line, but the second, though delivered with a sumptuous sound, exposed a flaw which became more apparent as the recital progressed.

Douglas didn’t seem to register those magic moments when Brahms’s musical train of thought drifts suggestively - he just drove on past them.

This mattered less with the Third Piano Sonata, to which he brought the heroic energy for which he is famed: if the last movement of this variegated work sounded hectic and scrambled, that was more Brahms’s fault than Douglas’s. This recital coincided with the start of a Cd series for Chandos on which Douglas will record all the piano works of Brahms and Schubert: perhaps greater familiarity with his approach will breed content.

A few hours later the hall was taken over by the Park Lane Group for the first in its annual series of concerts. This admirable organisation has been spotting and nurturing young talent for half a century, and the musicians it put on here were outstanding.

The Russian-British pianist Alissa Firsova gave accounts of Beethoven’s final sonata and Rachmaninov’s Corelli Variations which reflected a brilliant grasp of their very different requirements.

She has a noble sound and an instinctively singing line, and in her hands Beethoven’s opening Allegro worked up a fine fury, with thunderous trills and cascading figurations.

Her pace in the variations was perfectly judged, allowing their increasingly intricate elaborations to blossom; her Rachmaninov was majestic.

The other players were the Cavaleri Quartet, who played Beethoven’s Opus 95 and Brahms’s Opus 51 with a lovely sense of their respective idioms: this group’s synergy is impressive, and the musical pleasure it generates is very infectious.