Barry Douglas

Brahms: Works for Solo Piano, Vol. 1

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Irish pianist Barry Douglas has largely avoided recording, but has made a substantial reputation on the concert stage. You'd think he might have cultivated a commanding, public style, but in this first-in-a-series album of Brahms piano works, he instead offers quiet, finely wrought interpretations. The programming concept itself is a bit involved, but Douglas pulls it off: instead of offering short works in complete sets, he picks and chooses in order to create a convincing sequence of moods and modes of expression. Here, Douglas sets Brahms' late works against broader works from earlier in the composer's career. His control over the Intermezzo, Capriccio, and Romance sets of Opp. 116, 117, and 118, is extraordinary, and few pianists have ever evoked so well the quintessential reaction to late Brahms: that when you hear the performance just once, you have an uncanny feeling of barely having scratched the surface. In Douglas' hands, the larger Rhapsodies, Op. 79, and the Ballade in B major, Op. 10/4, almost inspire relaxation: here Douglas turns up the volume and revels a bit in the melodies. It's almost as if these are intermezzi among the brutally complex actual intermezzi. The largest piece on the program, the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, takes on a slightly ecstatic quality in its finale placement, akin to the variation sets in late Beethoven. Quiet though it is, this is an ambitious, arresting, and often profound set of Brahms piano pieces, beautifully recorded.

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