Barry Douglas - Celtic Airs (Chandos)
Thirty years ago, the career of Irish pianist Barry Douglas was launched after he won the gold medal at the 1986 International Tchaikovsky competition. He's marking that anniversary by performing Tchaikovsky's piano concertos around the globe, and he's planning on recording all of the composer's solo piano works over the next couple of years. His love for Tchaikovsky remains solid, and it's something you'll even notice as you listen to Barry's new recording of Irish airs and dances, titled Celtic Airs.
All of a sudden, as I was listening to the tune "Master McGrath," I thought this arrangement sounds like echoes of Tchaikovsky. "Yeah, you're very right," Barry agrees. "Very well spotted. You know, when I did the first Celtic disc, there's a wonderful Irish tune, "The Coolin," and I did a set of variations. And I did it a little bit, kind of an Irish take on the Goldberg Variations [by Bach]. So I like to put a little bit of piano technique or a little hint, a connection to a classical composer or the way a composer wrote for the piano. I like to put that in because I think it's neat."
This is sort of how you bridge these two worlds, then, is that right?
"Yeah, I think because I'm not going to pretend," Barry explains. "I'm not a full-time Irish traditional musician. I love this music. I was brought up with it. My mother was from County Sligo in the west of Ireland, and every summer I was there for the whole summer, and we went into these pubs and we heard this music all the time. So it's in my blood, but I've never done it because I'm a classical pianist and it's tough to do this on the piano. But I thought, 'Actually, we can make arrangements which can also bring a new kind of color to Irish traditional music'."
Barry is joined on this recording by three traditional Irish musicians: flutist Eimear McGeown, fiddler Chris Stout, and harpist Catriona McKay. Barry created the arrangements of these traditional tunes. He says it offers him a new challenge. "It's very liberating," he explains. "I spent a week in Marseille, in France, in early January this year. And I just locked myself in the hotel on the balcony overlooking the old port of Marseille and I just sat there and I made my arrangements … I really nailed the whole thing that week, just looking at Marseille and smelling the fish market and going out for a trip on a boat. And it was an incredible kind of cathartic experience and I adore doing it.
In the introduction to this recording, there's an old Irish Gaelic proverb, Bíonn cúig insint ar gach scéal agus dhá ghabháil déag ar gach amhrán’, that translates to mean, "There may be five versions of every story, but there are 12 interpretations of each song." "Brendan's Air" was a piece handed down from the composer, to a teacher, to a student … in this case, Eimear, it's very haunting. "Yes, it's breathtaking, isn't it?" Barry says. "I love this piece, and I could listen to it all day. And I feel when she plays the opening solo, I don't even want to touch the piano — I think it's perfect without the piano. But it's lovely to try and just create a little bit of color background to this beautiful music."
"The Women of Ireland" is a piece that features Eimear on flute and the Shetland fiddle. Tell me about the fiddle.
"Well, I wanted to create some pieces that would be all four of us playing, including Catriona McKay on Scottish harp," Barry says. "And this is such a beautiful piece and allows the arranger to make different variations in different ensembles and then for us all to come together in the end. And the Scottish fiddle … the way Chris plays the fiddle, the Shetland fiddle, is incredible because he brings sudden jabs of new color and you think, 'My goodness, that can't work.' And then as you sit back you realize it does work, because he has found a different way of highlighting what the music is about. I've learned so much from these guys and we're going to do this in concert as well, and so we've got a lot of rehearsals coming up to really explore jigs and reels. And I think, it's a new period for me. I mean, I'm still a classical pianist very much at heart. But this is a lovely sideline."
"The Boatman" is a blending of both Irish and Scottish heritage. Will you share the story behind that, please?
"Like a lot of Irish traditional music, there is a tragic love story right at the heart of it. And this is no different. A poor young woman who has been deserted … but it's … I think it's an incredibly strong piece because women, in Irish traditional music, are symbolic not only of the country but of the heritage and the strength of what Ireland is about. And so something like this is a very symbolic thing. But of course, it's not so much the story that is important but the emotion that comes out of this view of how women have changed things and can change whole culture. And that's very much at the heart of Irish culture."
Chris and Catriona composed a set of reels for you. They're called, "Barry's Reels," and they're kind of jazzy. Tell me about those pieces. "Well, I mean they said, we're going to write some pieces for you and I said, 'Great, thank you, I'm very honored.' And when I saw it and heard it I thought, 'My goodness, I don't know if I'm up to this.' They are in a sense composing as well as interpreting, so they're changing, they're inspiring, they're incredibly flexible. And that's something I had to learn — just to let go, in other words. And not just to obey the notes but to use the notes to create new sounds and new emotions. And that's what was difficult for me in the beginning. That just comes with any musician as you evolve a piece and it gains complexity. So the whole journey is incredible for me, so I'm just having a ball."
Barry Douglas is a committed classical musician who loves exploring his Irish roots. He says there's just something about this music that makes everybody fall in love with it. "When you find these little pieces and bring them out in a different way, clothe them in different attire, they're so strong and so universal that it doesn't matter if you're Irish or Chinese or French or American — it doesn't matter because this is music which appeals to human beings because it is so universal and because we all as human beings go through very similar emotions, and I think this music is in tune with all of those things."