For acclaimed pianist Barry Douglas, choices are key

October 08, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

Athough he's not yet 33 years old, Barry Douglas has proved himself a survivor. When the Belfast-born pianist became the first Western pianist since Van Cliburn to win Moscow's Tchaikovsky Competition outright in 1986, he had to endure a storm of publicity that has undone many artists, including Cliburn himself.

The young Irishman never made himself a party to hype -- his restrained, dignified manner makes him about as willing to undertake self-promotion as a cat is to take a bath -- and, although he made the requisite recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, he managed to eschew most of the flashy pieces that tend to wear out the public's welcome of the latest sensation. That he comes to Baltimore tonight, Saturday and Sunday to perform Mozart's Concerto No. 25 -- instead of Rachmaninoff or Liszt -- with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra seems typical of the man. He is as gifted at nurturing and sustaining himself as he is at playing the piano.

"I really never had many problems in choosing repertoire with orchestras," Douglas says. "I tried hard to escape being put in a pigeonhole, though for a couple of years, I didn't play any Mozart or Beethoven -- at least with orchestra."

Douglas has been making mature choices all along, and he long ago chose to give himself the time to mature. His international career did not really begin until after his 26th birthday -- a little late for someone so talented -- but it came when he was old enough to know how to handle the pressure of success and to know that there is more to music than playing the piano. Although his ability for the instrument was obvious by the time he was 7 and though he was playing pieces as difficult as the Liszt Sonata by the age of 16, he also learned to play the clarinet and the cello, and he did not begin to devote himself to the keyboard until he left Ireland in 1978 to study in London with Maria Curcio at the Royal College of Music.

Curcio, who -- like Leon Fleisher -- was a student of Artur Schnabel, has prominence in Europe comparable to Fleisher's here. Like Schnabel and Fleisher, she is reputed to have a gift for initiating students into the mysteries of the greatest and most difficult music for the keyboard -- mainly Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. Although Douglas has a real gift for Russian repertory -- no one except his idol, Sviatoslav Richter, plays Tchaikovsky's G Major Sonata or Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" better -- Viennese composers form the core of his repertory.

"A lot of stuff is good for training you actually to play the piano -- especially Chopin," Douglas says. "But for a grasp of structure and the ability to shape phrases, it's very important to learn how to play classical composers."

Douglas rarely, if ever, plays badly. While some of his recordings for RCA Victor, for example, may be better than others, all are excellent. He has an almost uncanny ability to decide what he can play well and what he is not ready to play, to know when to withdraw a piece from his active repertory and when to pick it up again.

"Certain pieces just can't be played all the time," Douglas says. "When you get to a stage where [a piece] isn't moving anymore, it becomes dangerous to play it too often. The Brahms concertos are like that and so is the Liszt Sonata. Then there are certain pieces -- such as the Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concertos -- that are nice but not intrinsically great. The difficulty is that you begin to know exactly what you want to do. The freshness of a concert is of paramount importance, and there must be an element of surprise both for you and for the audience. You've studied the piece and analyzed it -- but there has to be a freshness in concerts such that the audience must feel, 'it's being created just for us.' "

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