English profiles

Arnhem, 8 November 2010

When I interviewed Barry Douglas, I noticed how taxing the job of a pianist can be: moving from one place to another, struggling against jetlag after a long flight from the United States, a rehearsal and a concert ahead during which he had to substitute for an indisposed Ivan Moravec.. And on top of that an interview…

Willem Boone (WB): I heard you back in 1987 when you played the Third Piano Concerto by Prokofiev with Vladimir Ashkenazy in Amsterdam. Do you still remember this concert?

Barry Douglas (BD): Yes, I do. It was a great tour, we played four concerts, we also played in Luzern, but I do not remember were the other two performances took place.

WB: Is it different when you are accompanied by a conductor who is also a pianist?

BD: He knows the score well, which makes things easy. And Ashkenazy is a wonderful musician!

WB: On your website, I read that you did Brahms’s First Piano Concerto both as a soloist and a conductor? Why would you take on such a difficult job in such a symphonic concerto?

BD: I want to come to a unified interpretation. It is possible to be both conductor and soloist in this concerto, but you need a lot of rehearsals, during which you have to discuss with the leaders of each section. We will do the Second Concerto in April 2011.

WB: You must have done Brahms’s First Concerto with a lot of conductors. Does the fact that you wish to conduct yourself mean that you were not happy with your previous interpretations?

BD: No, I was happy about earlier experiences, although they were never quite exactly what I wanted to do.

WB: Do you always have the scores of the compositions you play with you?

BD: I carry them around, but I know them all.

WB: You will start your recital tonight with two pieces by John Field. I never heard his music played in concerts!

BD: He was an interesting composer and pianist. He was a virtuoso from Dublin and he influenced a lot of composers, e.g. Chopin, Mendelssohn and Liszt, but also Russian composers, since he taught in Sint Petersburg. He also was an interesting personality in Paris in the 1840s.  He wrote seven concertos and he invented the Nocturnes!

WB: Are there any other well-known Irish composers?

BD: In the operatic field there was a composer called Balf and Arnold Bax lived in Ireland for a long time.

WB: Chopin made some bad comments about Field…

BD: Yes, one was not very nice to the other. As far as the Nocturnes are concerned, Chopin was probably more inspired by the belcanto of Bellini, but Field was the one who invented the nocturnes. Of course, Chopin had his own genius…

WB: Speaking of which, I can’t remember I ever heard you play Chopin?

BD: I play his music from time to time.

WB: What do you think of pianists like Brendel who says it’s either Chopin or ‘the others”?

BD: Maybe he is right, maybe he is not, but one thing is for sure: with Chopin, your technique gets better and better!

WB: Is Chopin the only composer where you feel this?

BD: I think so, yes.

WB: Why is that?

BD: He demands such clarity and control with relatively few notes.. It is rather like Mozart..

WB: What is the most difficult to bring out in Chopin’s music according to you?

BD: The breathing of the phrases, especially when the tempi are slow. You have to emulate the human voice.

WB: Your colleague Martha Argerich once said that Chopin and Liszt were “jealous of each other” when combined in the same recital programme. Can you say the same about combining Chopin and Schumann?

BD: It is good to have an intermission in between..Schumann comes from a different tradition. In the First Sonata which I will play tonight, the writing is more symphonic. Field introduces in a quiet way the newness of the Schumann sonata and then, after the intermission, the Chopin Polonaises are dark with big base melodies, in a way there are links with the Schumann sonata. Tonight’s programme is about links between composers.

WB: What makes the First Sonata so new?

BD: He was criticized for being episodic. The build-up of the short episodes produces amazing music.

WB: Don’t you think Schumann was better in shorter pieces?

BD: Not better, anything he wrote was very interesting, even the unusual way he structures the bigger pieces. You could also criticize Beethoven for his later compositions or Brahms for his orchestration..

WB: Was Brahms often criticized for that?

BD: O yes, the orchestration of his First Piano Concerto was called too thick and lacking in clarity..

WB: You won the Tschaikofsky competition in 1986, were you the first non-Russian winner after Van Cliburn in 1958?

BD: No, there were others, like John Ogdon in 1962, but he shared first prize with Ashkenazy.

WB: Is Tschaikofsky still one of your favourite composers?

BD: O yes, he is wonderful!

WB: Did you often get the opportunity to play the Third Concerto or the Fantasy for piano and orchestra?

BD: Neither of them are very popular, I played the Second and Third Concertos a few times, I never played the Fantasy in concert.

WB: So did you learn the latter for the recording?

BD: No, I played it many times in concert

WB: You just said you never performed it in concert?

BD: I meant not since the recording, orchestras are scared to play it..

WB: Isn’t it the pianist who should be scared?

BD: It is not a very difficult piece.

WB: No? There is a huge cadenza, isn’t there?

BD: Yes, you are right, there is a big cadenza..

WB: From a technical standpoint, which of Tschaikofsky’s concertos is the most difficult one?

BD: They are all difficult, the First is very difficult, but it is also light and transparent, not one note is out of place, it is very beautifully written, the Second is a bigger piece, it is like a canvas..

WB: Did you play the Second Concerto in the Siloti version?

BD: I played both versions.

WB: What do you think of his solo piano works?

BD: Some of them are very beautiful, e.g. The Seasons, they are sometimes like little miniature operas..

WB: Not long ago, a CD was released with your performances of Rachmaninov’s First and Third Concertos on BMG, accompanied by Svetlanov. They were recorded some time ago, what was the reason that they were issued after all?

BD: There are other Svetlanov recordings that were not released. The Rachmaninov Concertos were forgotten about for a while, but then a new boss came in at BMG and he wanted to release them!

WB: Did you forget about them as well?

BD: I couldn’t remember what they sounded like. I did a lot of concerts with Svetlanov. Interestingly enough, he started as a pianist and a composer. I cannot remember the beginning of the Third Concerto better played than with Svetlanov. Piano and orchestra breathed together.

WB: Were these live recordings?

BD: No, studio recordings.

WB: Is Rach “Third” truly the most difficult piece?

BD: Everything is difficult! You could say the same about Mozart. Actually, anything is difficult if you want to make it sound convincing and beautiful. It’s not just about the notes…

WB: If you look back on the period 1986-November 2011, were there any important artistic developments in your career?

BD: A lot of different things, for example, working with Kurt Sanderling or Svetlanov, both were very impressive conductors.

WB: Are there things you would like to do in the near future?

BD: I have a chamber orchestra and I would like to do an opera festival with an opera company in Ireland during which I’d like to conduct. It would be just for one weekend per year, maybe some early Verdi or Händel.

WB: But it doesn’t mean you will abandon the piano?

BD: No, I won’t!