Fort Worth — Irish pianist Barry Douglas, who is appearing on Tuesday evening as part of the Cliburn Concerts at Bass Hall series, is another medal (bronze) winner (1985) from the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition returning in triumph. In 1986, he also won the prestigious gold medal in the International Tchaikovsky Competition: the first non-Russian to win it since Van Cliburn. He will play a concert of music by Brahms and Schubert.
When people say that Douglas is a modern day Franz Liszt, they are partly right. He certainly has a formidable technique and delivers exciting performances. But his connection is more than that. As far as his teachers go, he is in a direct line with that most famous of all pianists. As a teenager, he took lessons with Felicitas LeWinter, who studied with Emil von Sauer, who studied with Liszt.
“It happened by chance,” Douglas says. “This was back in Belfast [his home town]. My father met someone who told him that LeWinter was in town. I reached out to her and she accepted me as a pupil. She had a rich memory of what Sauer had said about Liszt and she passed that on to me. We are getting further away from that era and such a direct connection was very valuable to me. Later, she caught a performance of mine and, afterwards, she told me: ‘Barry, you finally caught the Liszt spirit.’”
Of course, piano technique has progressed a lot since the time of Liszt. Pianists with astounding technical abilities are younger and younger. However, developing an individual style and mature musicianship are another matter.
“I have recently been all around China and I heard many 13-year-old pianists who can give a flawless performance of all the notes in Gaspard [Ravel’s finger-busting suite Gaspard de la Nuit], but that is only the start of giving a thoughtful reading of that piece,” he says. “In master classes, I emphasize that students need to absorb absorb the musical humanity that surrounds us. Technique is not about playing the right notes, which is only the start. It is about playing music, not notes. That is also my daily struggle.”
In addition to Liszt, his teacher linage also goes back to Artur Schnabel, one of the greats of the 20th century, through his study with Maria Curcio. Schnabel brought Douglas what he learned as a pupil of Theodor Leschetizky, one of the most famous piano pedagogues of all time. That is almost the entire history of piano playing that filtered down to Douglas.
Douglas also studied with other distinguished teachers with an accent on international piano styles. He worked with John Barstow for four years in London and with the Russian pianist Yevgeny Malinin in Paris. What is remarkable about all this is that Douglas doesn’t take students himself. You cannot help but wonder how he plans to hand down this rich heritage he was given?
“I do not teach, but I do master classes all the time. I can have an impact on a lot of young pianists that way," he says.
This led to a question about his general impression of the students with which he works.
“They all have excellent technique. The main thing I see that is lacking in young pianists is that all-important emotional contact with the music. They are also not as free as they might be. Of course, when you are young you naturally lack the life experiences that will happen later.”
His own “emotional contact with the music” is the gift that Schnabel bestowed, who was known as a profound thinker who gave performances of great depth and spirituality. His recordings of the Beethoven sonatas, made in the 1930’s, are still the gold standard as far as interpretations and understanding of the music goes.
An aside: For some reason, there are wrong notes in these recordings, which was not the case in a live performance. One theory is a case of nerves when in the studio.
Douglas will play a program of music by Brahms and Schubert. Brahms’ Klavierstücke, op. 119; Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy; and Brahms’ Waltzes, op. 39 and the big Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 5.
Why so much of these two composers, who are hardly in need of performances?
“I just finished recording the complete piano works of Brahms,” Douglas says. “It will be released in mid 2016, Next, I am starting to record all of then piano works of Schubert. He wrote a lot more music than Brahms did, but I am determined to do it. It should take about seven years.”
This attention to Brahms and Schubert is not at the expense of living composers, by the way. He frequently plays the music of John Corigliano and is also a champion of the piano concerto by Krzysztof Penderecki.
“I played the premiere of the latest version of that concerto in 2007 in Israel,” he says of the piece, which was originally written in 2001/02. “I am also active in commissioning works by emerging Irish composers. It is important that we play their music.”
Before we ended the conversation, he talked about returning to the Metroplex.
“I love coming back to Dallas/Fort Worth. I have many friends in both cities.” Then, in a quiet voice, he adds “This time will be different, though. Van [Cliburn, who died in 2013] will not be here, but I am sure his spirit will be.”