St John the Evangelist on Iffley Rd hosted a Barry Douglas solo piano recital on Tuesday, commencing with Brahms' 8 Klavierstücke [piano pieces], Op. 76, little studies of c. three minutes each but possessing a collective gravity and sophistication that belies their diminutive scale. Sonia Gonzalo's very helpful programme description correctly notes that the four capricci are of a more robust character than the four intermezzi, and the first two examples of the former had a lively and cheerful nature at 'allegro' tempo, whereas the first two examples of the latter moved at a more reflective 'andante' pace. The grander fifth piece is, I think, the heart and soul of the set, and Mr Douglas began to explore the left hand lower register in the surging passages, before moving on to something akin to a Chopinesque ballade in the penultimate intermezzo.
The audience of getting on for 150, an excellent turnout on a chilly Tuesday, had by now come to visual grips with Mr Douglas' presence. He's been in the first rank of UK piano maestros for not far short of three decades now – I first heard him play what seems like aeons ago at St John's, Smiths Square in Westminster. All in black, he cut a distinguished, leonine figure at the keyboard, keeping upright and notably still as he played from memory throughout, gazing fixedly at the keyboard.
Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 35 Book 1 from 1962 followed, something of a technical exercise from the composer's late twenties. This is the very theme mined by Sergei Rachmaninov in his famous Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini of 1934. Brahms' variations are a taxing calisthenic proposition, the musical equivalent of a workout on rowing machine and weights in the gym., but the showiness builds from a relatively sober statement of the theme in the opening. Arpeggios and trills then begin to feature, and Mr Douglas settled down to a sustained shower of fireworks, towards the end toboganning on a welter of glissandi, faster and faster, in combination and across both hands.
At the interval Mr Douglas disappeared, but the Steinway grand remained, the high-gloss surface of its propped lid reflecting a distorted reality of the piano's insides. When he re-appeared for the second half, he sat down on his stool and instantly started to play. No shifting about, no adjusting height and reach, no composing himself. It was a tiny but telling demonstration of single-minded eagerness to get at the music.
Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition is a justly celebrated narrative conjuring-up of a St Petersburg 1874 art show in homage to his friend Viktor Hartmann. It comprises a statement and then four re-statements of the signature theme in 'promenades', moments where the spectator viewer strolls from one picture to the next. And what a cornucopia of musical textures adorned those exhibition walls, from a sinister nutcracker to a market scene in Limoges, and from a ponderous bullock cart to the Jardin des Tuileries. Mr Douglas proceeded in his interpretation from the purely descriptive to the impressionistic, once in Mussorgsky's portrayal of a rich and a poor man conveying the distinction merely from the weight of left and right hand on the keyboard. For the final episode, the Great Gate at Kiev, Mr Douglas lit the after-burners for the helter-skelter scales and repeated, crashing chords. There was as a moment of stunned silence at the end while we digested what we'd heard before the applause broke out, just about as vociferous as applause ever gets in the setting of a church.
I had been listening all week to this music on CD in two different interpretations but Mr Douglas' playing here, in its combining of gravitas with raw energy, affirmed the vivid primacy of the live performance over the recording studio.