Fort Worth — On Tuesday night at Bass Hall, pianist Barry Douglas gave a recital of conflicting contrasts as the final performance of the Cliburn season. While his pianism is that of a first-rate artist, it is his intellect and sensitivity to musical structure that draws the listener in rather than the quality of his sound.
Something special was noticeable from the very beginning of the performance, which started with the Klavierstücke, Op. 119 of Johannes Brahms. In each of these four short pieces, Douglas displayed an impressive command over the coloristic possibilities of the piano. Although pianists are limited in number of tools available to change timbre, nearly every one of them was on display. Every time a passage was repeated, changes in voicing and inflection gave similar sections a renewed interest. Brahms was meticulous in the articulation indications he wrote in his scores. It was satisfying to hear such attention to detail as Douglas pursued a special sound for each legato, staccato, portato, and slur marking. However, in the more aggressive Rhapsody at the end of the set, a noticeable change came about the pianist. The former thoughtfulness began to give way to a more brash and blurred sound. The middle section made one beg to hear what was happening in the pianist’s ears as an indistinct and muffled sound was transmitted to the hall. Fortunately, these moments were somewhat isolated, and Douglas was able to relay a cohesive telling of the four pieces.
A similar approach followed in Schubert’s monumental Wanderer Fantasy. Each section was carefully planned with the overall architecture of the entire piece in mind. He once again showed his distinct ability to change approach and sound to suit the demands of the score. There are places in this work that every pianist fears: Huge jumps with both hands in contrary motion, rapid arpeggios requiring pinpoint precision, and an unrelenting fugato section at the end of the piece. Douglas courageously attacked each of these challenges but was not able to escape unscathed. This risky showmanship was admirable and exciting at certain level but came at the cost of a harsh sound quality. By the end of the piece, one began to question his intentions as hurried and almost nervous playing began to permeate, completely betraying the intelligent control of the first three-quarters of the piece. This did not keep the audience from an enthusiastic standing ovation at the conclusion of the work.
The right sound for Brahms is a touchy subject among pianists. Those who see him as the virtuoso composer full of sonic bravura tend to favor a Lisztian pace and temperament. On the other hand, there are those who view Brahms as the rational engineer with a faultless ear for structural and motivic unity. While this is perhaps an oversimplification of the matter, when deciding on approach one should remember that Brahms was not an ally of Liszt’s new school of musical thought. Douglas seems to have made an attempt to reconcile several different viewpoints in the all-Brahms second half of the concert with varying success.
The pushy, brash nature of the opening of the Brahms Waltzes, Op. 39 was a bit bewildering. No purpose could be found for this same treatment he used for all of the louder waltzes except for the desire to play with greater sound than the piano would allow. Each of the more tender movements was given a free and delicate playing. Again, one wished for more clarity and direction in the polyphonic lines Brahms weaved into the texture as beautiful inner voices would suddenly disappear without warning. The extreme contrast between the loud and soft indicated very little attempt to unite the waltzes into an organized cycle of pieces. Thankfully, the pianist we heard at the beginning of the concert returned for the final work of the evening.
If it is true that Brahms feared being compared to Beethoven in his symphony writing, he was certainly not afraid of the gigantic shadow Beethoven cast in the genre of the piano sonata. Brahms’ three piano sonatas were published as Opp. 1, 2 and 5 within the space of only three years. Each one was composed on a massive scale, and each were in many ways an experiment in structural concept, establishing the young composer as one of the most important of his generation. Douglas seized this opportunity to make obvious the thematic development used to hold together the symphonic Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 5.
In Classical fashion, the exposition of the first movement is repeated verbatim. Douglas managed to find just the right places to change color and mood on the repetition in a way that urged anticipation of the development section. It is a shame he continued the unusually extreme contrast between soft and loud sections. In the hauntingly attractive second movement, strange manipulations of several rhythms were noticeable as a result of his insistence on pushing forward instead of relaxing the tempo, especially where large stretches of the hand are written. However, the final measures of this same movement were stunning in their control and balance, giving a few moments of sublime light.
In the final movement, there is a section of the music that acts as a watershed event as all of the harmonic and motivic planning of the work comes to fruition. Although Douglas obliged Brahms’ request for a very rapid tempo, his tendency to push the music to the point of breathlessness paired with a return of an unforgiving sound lessened the impact it could have had.
The occasionally brash and rough playing could have significantly dampened the general impression of the recital. However, when listening from the analytical perspective, the overall performance was one of great intelligence. It is easy to tire of performances that do not hold together as a cohesive whole. For the most part, Douglas was successful keeping the music tied together and moving forward.
» Read our interview with Barry Douglas here