Barry Douglas was 26 years old when he won the Gold Medal at the 1986 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition. He stirred up a lot of memories when he returned to Moscow as a judge in 2011. "I mean, it was obviously a very different time, in 1986, compared to 2011. But the hall looks magnificent. The audience is still passionate about music and about piano playing. And the standard of the competition was extremely high and also, it's the participation of the audience — they really get into it. And they were following the jury members down the street, giving us suggestions or even hurling abuse — it was wonderful. We really got into the thick of it."
Now this Irish pianist and conductor (who founded the chamber orchestra Camerata Ireland in 1999), is in the thick of another major project, the piano music of Johannes Brahms. "This is a huge undertaking, obviously, because there's a vast amount of music there, of piano solo music written by Brahms and Schubert. And we've had this plan to record the complete Brahms and we hope to start on the Schubert later on this year." That's Irish pianist Barry Douglas enthusing about a mammoth undertaking with Chandos Records to record all of the piano works by Brahms and Schubert. He's just released volume two in the Brahms collection and hopes to record his first in the Schubert series later this year. "And I decided, with the Brahms, not to just play opus numbers and go from childhood to his deathbed. I decided to mix it around a bit and make interesting piano recital evenings, as it were, on one CD. So people, if they listen to the CD, see that there's a kind of logic to what I've chosen, in terms of how the pieces interrelate and how they contrast, and I think that's a good way to do it."
Johannes Brahms composed his Opus 10 Ballades shortly after his friend and patron Robert Schumann was confined in a sanatorium near Bonn. As he became protector and comforter to Schumann's wife, Clara, and her children, Brahms also found himself falling in love with Clara. His conflicting feelings are quite evident in the Ballade No. 2 which opens this collection of solo piano works. Barry Douglas says intentionally positioned that early Ballade next to the composer's later piano works. "I wanted to make those contrasts between, first of all, the early period, these ballades from opus 10, which are right at the beginning of his creative life and the opus 116, opus 119, which are the last pieces he wrote for piano. I think I've spotted that there are beautiful thematic and other links between these pieces, even though they're years apart. But also, I wanted to make a beautiful kind of flow of keys. So it's just trying to make those links and make an interesting and attractive recital, so if people listen to the whole thing then they will see that it's like being at a concert."
The recording closes out with the Sonata No. 3, Op. 5, in f minor. This work consists of five movements and in some ways is a symphony masquerading as a sonata. According to Douglas, "There are many incredibly magical moments in this sonata. One of them occurs at the end of the second movement. The way he has paced the final section of the second movement, the slow movement, it's almost could be out of a Wagner opera. It could be out of the Twilight of the Gods . It's got this incredible pacing and nobility to it. So it's a very special moment."
"The scherzo, which is the third movement-it's got the fast section and then the more noble middle section and then it returns to the fast section — is a kind of a demonic, but magisterial scherzo. Scherzo, of course, is the Italian for joke. And it's hardly a joke. It uses the whole piano., The very first measure, it has an arpeggio right from the bottom of the piano to the top and then it just explodes on the stage. It's an incredible piece.
"It's like chemistry when two people meet," Douglas says of his love for the piano music of Brahms. "I just feel comfortable playing Brahms' works. And I've played his piano concertos-in fact we will also record the two piano concertos with the BBC Symphony in a couple of years' time and maybe also do some chamber music. So I guess I do feel strongly about his music and that's just something that I can't explain, and also Schubert. I came to Schubert very late. It's really relatively recently I've come to feel that I've something to say with Schubert, and so I'm having a go."