Classical Music: `The piano? It's overrated ...'

Barry Douglas won a piano competition and found himself playing at being a pin-up. Enough was enough: it was time to play things his way. By Michael Church
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The Independent Culture
Some pianists are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them by winning competitions. Not all wear the mantle with ease. The terrible example of Terence Judd, who won the British Liszt Competition in 1976, then a prize at the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, then jumped off Beachy Head, still looms in the memory. A competition win - unless it's accompanied by the sort of aftercare lavished on the BBC Young Musician of the Year - can set up inhuman pressures, not least through the obligatory concerts by which sponsors extract their pound of flesh. Some prizes are actually withdrawn if a winner defaults.

Belfast-born Barry Douglas may be one of the few Westerners to have won the Tchaikovsky competition, but he too advises caution. "It's never written in the small print that competitions can seriously damage your health, but it should be. A young player who isn't up to it physically or emotionally - or in terms of repertoire - can easily be destroyed by them." It's now 10 years since his celebrated coup and, though he was anything but destroyed by it, his subsequent path has not been smooth.

After six years of global slog, he abruptly took himself out of the game to spend a year studying Russian at Oxford. "Some people asked if I'd had a burn-out, but it was nothing to do with that," he says. "It's a weird life, being a pianist, and I wanted to ask myself some questions. What had I done so far? I knew what I'd achieved, but what was it all about? And I had this great mistrust of the piano. In fact, I still have: it's an overrated thing. As every intelligent musician knows, the trick is to make it not sound like a piano, but like something else - an oboe, or a choir. When it just sounds like a piano, it's boring. That was the problem I had in my head when I went to Oxford, and I did find some answers."

The piano was not his first instrumental love - in his teens he was a cellist, a star clarinettist, and a budding conductor - but this mistrust seems more a symptom of the (healthy) stubbornness one senses beneath the surface charm. Douglas has made some superb recordings of Russian music for the RCA Victor label, which has marketed them with broodily elegant photos, as though he was modelling clothes for Gap. His relationship with that company is now over.

Record companies, he says, want quick results, and if these don't materialise, they drop you. "That is sad, because art has nothing to do with quick results. You have to back a horse that may not win." So in crude commercial terms he hasn't won? A rueful laugh, a shrug. "It's not that. But one is always looking around for better solutions." Was there a fight about repertoire? There's clearly a lot he could say but, after a visible inner struggle, he clams up.

"But it's probably the right time for me to step back and enlarge my repertoire. I may be doing a Beethoven cycle next year. That would be completely new, and I wouldn't be ready to record it - it takes two or three years for a piece to settle. I shall take another period off, just doing my stuff. Then, when the time is ripe, I'll make records again."

He seems to be swimming against the tide in a variety of ways. Record companies are markedly reluctant to issue compilations rather than single- composer discs, which is odd given that concert programmes are almost always "compilations". Douglas has at least persuaded RCA to release one such record - in which he juxtaposes Liszt, Webern, and Berg - flying admirably in the face of this trend.

And he campaigns against the odds for the new. "Every performer has a duty to keep music alive, by encouraging composers to write new music. What's the future otherwise? More and more museum-like. I like to know the composer, and discuss with him - to eat, drink, and play, both with him and to him. That's how I work with John Corigliano, and with John McCabe." His current crusade is to persuade American orchestras to play American music. The trouble, he admits, is that it doesn't sell.

All this may sound embattled, but that is not the impression this forceful musician gives on his home ground. The main focus of his Holland Park flat is the piano at one end of a long room overlooking the garden, but the whole place is cluttered with the paraphernalia of happy parenthood. His wife and baby daughter travel with him whenever possible, and they have another flat in Paris. Why Paris? "No good reason. Just for the hell of it." His daughter, he says, will grow up bilingual. He practises four hours a day. "That seems right, seems honourable. On travel days I aim for two." He keeps in close touch with Belfast: he's chosen the Steinway for the city's soon-to-open Waterfront Hall, and looks forward to playing it.

He describes himself as being, "like most pianists, a natural loner". "I listen less and less to other players," he says. "I'm very determined that nothing should detract from my solutions. I used to listen a lot to other people - I'd say, I wonder how Gilels deals with that? But it sounds better, truer, if I've solved things myself." I ask if there is anything that has so far defeated him. "Nothing is impossible - but everything is difficult. I don't want to tempt fate, but I don't have a serious problem with anything."

We circle back to that original question about the fundamental purpose of it all. The answer seems to be a kind of evanescence. "Because music really is a house of cards - a bit of wind can blow it down. Nothing technical - that's a scientific thing, or related to whether you hurt your hand carrying a case. No, it's to do with having to feel that every night is the only performance you'll ever do. You have to feel, as you walk on, that there's going to be an element of shock, an immediate smell, an atmosphere which exudes from the instrument. That's what makes it fragile, but you must always strive for it, strive for that smell."

A few days after this interview, I bumped into one of Douglas's former teachers, so I asked what he remembered of his pupil. The reply was unexpected. "If you were walking along the road with him, and there was a narrow passage at the end, Barry would be as courteous as he is by nature. But then you would discover that, somehow, he had already got through first. He always had to be out in front. This thrust has never deserted him, and it never will." Oh, and one other thing, said the professor. If Barry Douglas hadn't become a pianist, he would have been an airline pilot.

Barry Douglas plays Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, with the LSO Michael Tilson Thomas, on Tuesday, 7.30pm Barbican Hall, London EC1 (0171-638 8891)