Barry Douglas, Cadogan Hall, London
Thursday 24 April 2008
One of Barry Douglas's tutors once gave me a revealing character-sketch of his pupil. If you were approaching a narrow passage with him, he said, Barry would be impeccably considerate and courteous. But then you would discover that he had somehow got through first: he always had to be out in front. Which is where this Belfast-born pianist has been ever since he won the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow, 22 years ago.
Whether in his choice of repertoire, or in his championing of new work, or in wielding a baton as director of Camerata Ireland, he's resolutely ploughed his own furrow. So it was no surprise that he should begin his Cadogan Hall recital with some pieces whose studied avoidance of any kind of charm has ensured that they are very seldom performed.
Schumann wrote his Three Romances at a triumphant point in his youthful love-life, and you can sense this triumph in the way he creates the first romance out of the most unpromising semitonal three-note phrase. Douglas laid down its melodic contours with a firm touch and a big sound, as befitted Schumann's markings, and he made a virtue of its austere economy. He brought a strong cantabile to the ballad-like piece that followed, and let the final one meander where it chose.
With Ravel's ferociously demanding Gaspard de la Nuit, Douglas was technically in his element, but one waited in vain for the fleeting delicacy in the movement portraying the water-nymph Ondine. In "Le gibet", the corpse swung and the bell tolled mournfully, and "Scarbo" became a riot of fire and thunder. Under Douglas's fingers, the segue from this to Liszt's Dante sonata was almost too natural: both were, at root, expressions of muscular force under cool control.
One, therefore, looked forward with interest to seeing how he would tackle Schubert's Olympian final sonata, but this proved a huge disappointment. Its grave poetry – the infinitely subtle interplay of gaiety and grimness, light and shade – completely passed Douglas by. Ironic that he should choose one of Brahms's most delicately allusive intermezzi as an encore, delivering it with a properly poetic touch.
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