It’s been more than 30 years since Irish pianist Barry Douglas won the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. And his playing is as fresh and inspired as ever.
Take his latest album of Brahms piano pieces, his sixth CD in a collection of Brahms complete piano solo works for Chandos. Every piece is played as if a discovery. Douglas’ concept is to present each album as a recital. Consequently, this album is vastly entertaining, from the opening Rokoczy March to the irresistible set of Hungarian Dances.
Douglas’ luminous touch is ideal in three Brahms’ studies, the composer’s arrangements of music by Chopin, Weber and Bach. But the most unforgettable are the pieces from Op. 76, which are rich with expressive beauty.
He kicks off an ambitious, five-week concert tour on Sunday at the Xavier Piano Series. Douglas performs at 2:30 p.m. in Gallagher Center Theater, Xavier University.
The pianist spoke by phone from Lurgan, Ireland. He and his wife had just enjoyed a fall day at Newgrange, a prehistoric monument on the River Boyne, a small break before getting on the plane Friday to Cincinnati.
Question: How extensive is your upcoming tour?
Answer: I will be gone for five-and-a-half weeks. I haven’t done a tour like that for a long time. I try to keep them around three weeks. I’ll be in the U.S., Canada and then I finish in China before Christmas. It’s mostly solo recitals, and I’m also playing with the Vancouver Symphony in November.
I’m going to be in the country for Thanksgiving, so I’m looking forward to that. It will be my second Thanksgiving, with friends in Fort Worth.
Q: I’ve been listening to your latest CDs in your complete solo piano works of Brahms and Schubert. One doesn’t hear many new recordings of complete works or box sets these days. What made you want to tackle them?
A: Chandos wanted to do something important, and we sat down over lunch and Ralph Couzens (Chandos managing director) said, “What’s the composer nearest and dearest to your heart?”
I have a lot of composers who are nearest and dearest, depending on my mood. But probably Brahms is the composer that really I’ve connected with, apart from the all the Russians. He said, “Why don’t you do the complete works of Brahms?”
I knew probably three-quarters of the music, so then I had to learn another quarter. It was such a fascinating journey, going back to pieces I’d played many years ago, and new ones and discovering all the little pieces, and the transcriptions and the Hungarian Dances. It was an interesting, enjoyable voyage.
Q: Were there any surprises?
A: Yes, Op. 76. It blows my mind. It’s so rich and mystical. It’s profound. It’s profundity that can even rival the late pieces. It’s eight pieces – intermezzi, capriccios. Theyr’e really epic. I just can’t get enough of them.
Q: Many of these pieces are familiar to piano teachers and students alike. What is your process when you revisit music that you’ve played many years ago?
A: I try to just read through them and spot things that I hadn’t spotted before – little connections or patterns, or surprising moments or little climaxes I hadn’t realized were there, quirky things, or asymmetry, which fascinates me in Brahms. Like any brilliant composer, there’s so much going on and you never really get to the bottom of it. I just go from one day to the next.
Q: And the complete works of Schubert, too?
A The Schubert set is the complete of all the important things. I’ve done three CDs so far.
Q: And after that, I hear you’re embarking on Tchaikovsky’s complete works.
A: I’m starting that in February, just the solo works. Last year was 30 years since I won (the Tchaikovsky Competition), and (Chandos) said, “Why don’t you do the concertos?” We didn’t, for several reasons. And, I’ve already recorded them with Leonard Slatkin. … But the solo works are gems, with “The Seasons,” which I love. The 12 short pieces are just like little operatic arias or songs without words.
Q: Are you also conducting now?
A: I conduct my chamber orchestra (Camerata Ireland) about 30 concerts a year. I don’t pretend to be a conductor, but I do guest-conduct sometimes. My chamber orchestra is not just a labor of love, it’s a celebration. Because they’re all my Irish buddies, and we make music. It’s just such a pleasure.
Q: At Xavier, you’ll be playing Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” It’s not often that we get to hear it on the piano, as it was originally written.
A: Yes, a lot of people come backstage and say, “I didn’t realize it was written for piano.” I played it in England in some recitals, and a very famous rock guitarist said, “I thought it was by Emerson Lake & Palmer.” Then I realized, they did do a version of “Pictures at an Exhibition”!
Barry Douglas’ program includes Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90, No. 1 and Wanderer Fantasy; Brahms’ Three Intermezzi Op. 117 and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.