BARRY DOUGLAS @ Music Toronto reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Tuesday, January 27, 2009. Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto.

The repertory Barry Douglas made his name with includes large-scale Romantic works he has recorded—piano concertos by Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Strauss. During the past year, he has put together an off-the-record chamber-music programme that he plays in some places, and fortunately, Toronto is one of them.

The selections of Schumann, Scriabin, and Ravel, suit Douglas’ talents and his temperament. All are techically demanding: Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5 in F-sharp major, Op. 53 are among the most technically difficult in the standard repertoire. The extreme contrasts in the work of these composers, particularly Schumann’s schizoid Sonata No.1 apparently suited his temperament as well, because Douglas just sat right down and swept through them with virtuosic abandon.

This extraverted style at first took some getting used to. The opening piece, Schumann’s Three Romances, Op. 28 has a meekness about it that Douglas overwhelmed, especially during the first B flat minor “Romance” which seems to sing disconsolately of the composer’s anxiety at being separated from Clara in Vienna where he had been unable to match her success. Douglas’ strong hand and overly sustained sonorities blurred the melodic themes of the elegant and touching second “Romance”. He began to come into his own in the strongly marked triumphant B major “Romance” where his thunder and his ‘piano’ flowed from one another more naturally.

To my ear, the tone poem “Ondine” that Ravel placed at the head of his Gaspard de la Nuit has a liquid transparency that sounds best played by pianists like Louis Lortie and Walter Geiseking who tip their feelings with subtlety and finesse. But Douglas nailed the macabre doom-ridden poetry and plangent harmonies of “Le Gibet”, and his gifts for velocity, daring and vivid colouring seemed expressly made to command the frantic excitement Ravel wrote into the pursuit of the elusive goblin that is the subject of the fiendishly difficult  “Scarbo.”

Interpretations of Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5 vary greatly. Glenn Gould’s is probably too slow and too flattened. Sviatoslav Richter’s is masterful. It is safe to say, Hakon Austbo got it just right. Barry Douglas sat down to this sonata like it was his cup of tea. He began very slowly and worked the energy up by degrees through a kind of rippling rag-jazz section to a pitch of near violent passion. From there episodes unfolded through marginally tonal realms out into the etheric where the piece seemed to enter a moment of warp drive and then disappear.

Just as Douglas gave us an authentic account of Scriabin, his playing of Schumann’s sprawling, knotty, difficult and not very popular Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 11 brought into focus the wonderfully unified world of Schumann’s melodies. The strong colours, the songlike themes, the obssessive repeats voiced in alternation by Schumann’s turbulent and reflective pair of alter-egos, Eusebius and Florestan, all these diverse energies are swept into a single drama by the hugeness of Douglas’ technique, his powers of organization, and his unflagging concentration.

Following the tremendous excitement his program generated, Douglas’ encore, the Brahms Intermezzo in E minor, brought the audience back to a calm state.

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