This season’s roster of performers on the La Jolla Music Society’s Frieman Family Piano Series has been stellar, featuring exciting young pianists such as Yuja Wang and Haochen Zhang, as well as the iconic master Mitsuko Uchida. After hearing Barry Douglas perform a tedious, perfunctory recital Friday (May 9) at Sherwood Auditorium, I must report that the Irish performer has sullied this series’ glowing record.
In Douglas’s opening set of Johannes Brahms Intermezzi (Opus 119), I noted a sensitivity to line and clarity of structure that augured well for an evening of nuanced interpretation. But once he launched into his monochromatic pounding of Franz Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy,” I sensed that my early expectations would not be fulfilled. Granted, the motto theme of the “Wanderer” is brash and loud, but Schubert finds manifold ways to contrast this mood throughout his piece. Douglas showed little interest in such contrasts of tenor and dynamic level—Schubert on steroids is not a pretty picture in my book.
His account of Schubert’s familiar G-flat Major Impromptu, D. 899, No. 3, proved equally insensitive. A piece whose rolling, arpeggiated accompaniment should provide an impressionistic cloud of support to a sumptuous lyrical theme floating above it was reduced to a busy, mechanical etude that sounded more like Hummel or Kalkbrenner than Schubert. His other Schubert Impromptu, the A-flat Major, D. 899, No. 4, a more extroverted piece than the G-flat Major, survived more gracefully Douglas’s muscle-flexing urgency.[php snippet=1]
Douglas certainly established the youthful passion of Brahms’ Third Piano Sonata in F Minor, a work the composer completed at age 20, and the performer’s technique easily handled the many challenges of this sturdy sonata. What I missed in Douglas’s account was his conviction that this music actually mattered, that it was something more than its impressive architecture of themes and transformations. This conviction is what made Uchida’s account of Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations on her March recital absolutely riveting. She delved into every crevasse of Beethoven’s score, keeping us on the proverbial edge of our seats as she exegeted with meticulous detail the composer’s musical offering.
Although the rather modest La Jolla audience gave Douglas a warm reception, he played no encores. He came back once to acknowledge the applause, smiled wanly, and disappeared.