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LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Vol. 3: Waltzes, Op. 39; Intermezzo, Op. 116 No. 5; Intermezzos Op. 119 Nos 1 & 3; Theme & Variations in D minor; Sonata No. 2
PERFORMER: Barry Douglas (piano)


Barry Douglas introduces this volume in his Brahms collection by joining the debate on this composer’s alleged ‘difficulty’. Since Brahms’s traditionalism went hand in hand with groundbreaking innovation, the conflict is a nonsense, says Douglas. More to the point is his ‘delicate interweaving of the very essence of our existence: I treasure every phrase’.

And that is how he plays him. I have never heard the Op. 39 Waltzes turned into such graceful single utterance. There’s a conversational directness, yet each waltz is vividly characterised: the caressing quality of the second gives way to the hesitant questioning of the third, the spaciousness of the fourth, and the hushed whisper of the fifth.

Brahms created the Theme with variations for piano from the majestic second movement of his first String Sextet. Douglas delivers the pared-down theme with massive power, and finds the necessary visionary quality for the closing variation. The two Intermezzos Op. 119 are taken at easy, unforced tempos, though in the Op. 116 piece we miss a necessary ghostly aura in its outer sections.

Winding up with the Sonata in F sharp major, Douglas harnesses all his reserves of virtuosity. But not even this heroic performance can cloak that fact that the sonata is the work of an apprentice.


Michael Church