Notes and Editorial Reviews
When Barry Douglas won his first prize in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1986 he was promptly engaged by Melodiya to record one of the works he had to offer: the Brahms D minor Concerto. Douglas's playing proved to be commending enough but as we can hear on the Olympia/Conifer CD issue of the Melodiya disc, the recording and orchestral playing left a lot to be desired ((CD) OCD137). So this new RCA recording, expertly produced and recorded last February in St Giles, Cripplegate with Skrowaczewski and the LSO, is greatly to be welcomed as the true memento of Douglas's Moscow triumph.
There is never any doubt that Douglas is technically, and in large measure emotionally, in command of this daunting work, and there is far better rapport here between pianist, conductor and orchestra than there was on the Melodiya issue. The slow movement, rapt and serious, is memorably sustained; there is nothing lax about the ensemble, nothing mannered or over-rhetorical about the playing. And the great first movement is held firmly on course. Once or twice I missed the sheer impetus of Szell's great reading with the same orchestra for Curzon on Decca (the leggiero before the recapitulation dancing in a way that fires up the soloist rather than damping him down) but doubts about the initially broad tempo (as broad as Haitink's for Arrau on Philips) were unfounded. Douglas's marvellous realization of the E major recapitulation confirms that this is the tempo he wants, unlike Pollini on an older DG recording who flatly contradicts Bohm's spacious opening at the point of recapitulation. If I have doubt about any of the movements in the new RCA recording, it is the finale. I know Brahms marks it Allegro non troppo but from the outset of the movement there seems here to be a degree of circumspection, the absence of the kind of compelling dynamism that will drive the music on into self-absorbed unity through its several episodes.
Nowadays RCA no longer make concerto recordings with clattery pianos and dimly recessed orchestras. Douglas and his Steinway make a fierce, brilliant sound, but there is much that is exquisitely quiet, especially in the slow movement. The piano is forward but not unduly so, and the sound it makes is not all like polished steel. The orchestra is very naturally recorded, with great depth of field. If anything, the horns, crucial in this work, are almost too atmospherically distant, though it must be said that the quietest pedal note does seem to carry through the texture.
The competition is, of course, formidable. Gilels, whom I occasionally find mannered in this concerto, offers a famous two-CD set of both the Brahms concertos on DG. Arrau is a law unto himself, uniquely searching. His is a fundamentally different kind of reading, touched with youthful energy but with the energy of a youth burdened beyond his years, as Brahms probably felt he was at this time. Curzon could be technically fallible in Brahms but he was a serious and sensitive interpreter of the music and inspired by Szell at his most excoriating he gave a performance of mingled poetry and electricity that even he must have wondered at.
Douglas doesn't displace these masters but he has every right to co-exist with them. As a young Brahmsian he reminds me somewhat of the late Julius Katchen, fearless but sensitive, robust but never crass. Let us hope that RCA will not feed Douglas a diet of popular concertos; Katchen recorded all Brahms's solo piano music, and Douglas ought to be offered some comparable projects. Talent of this order needs space in which to roam and grow.'
-- Richard Osborne, Gramophone [3/1989]