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Podcast Interview: Barry Douglas talks about Brahms, Russia and Irish Music

30 April 2017

Barry Douglas, Johannes Brahms, Chandos

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In this podcast, internationally acclaimed pianist Barry Douglas talks about his Irish music influences, Brahms, his experiences in Soviet Russia and how winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1986 changed his life.

Listen to Barry Douglas in conversation with primephonic's Rachel Deloughry, or read the interview below:

So here we are at St. Patrick’s Festival in Amsterdam. We’re very much looking forward to hearing you perform the Trout Quintet with some of Amsterdam’s top string players. First though, speaking of festivals, how is your own festival going, the Clandeboye Festival in Northern Ireland?

We’re thrilled at how it’s going. It’s been in existence for 15 years now and this year we’ve expanded the number of days to try and have more time for the young musicians and more rehearsal time for the visiting artists who come from various countries. We had a theme of Russian music and culture last year which the audience really liked so I think I’m going to do that from now on – really make a strong theme every year. So this year I’m going to have the theme of the music and culture of France. So we’ve got a lot of French artists from Paris.

I was talking recently with the Irish soprano Ailish Tynan and she told me she’s going to be performing there too. She’s also really looking forward to it.

Yes, she’s wonderful. She’s been with us for quite a few years now.

You’ve released albums of Irish music, which is quite a change from what I’ve seen from your other recordings like complete Brahms and Schubert and Schumann. How did such a big change in repertoire come about?

Well, my mother is from Sligo and every summer we’d go there for two months and we’d go to the local pub near Enniscrone and hear Irish traditional music being played. I feel very familiar with it and very close to it but being a classical pianist, it doesn’t mix very well. [So it’s not an obvious choice.] So, 3 or 4 years ago we were making all the Schubert recordings in Cork School of Music, and we finished very quickly. The boss of Chandos, Ralph Couzens asked me, “Have you got anything else up your sleeve you’d like to record? Have you got any Irish tunes?” So I said “Well I have a few. I could do a few today and we’ll get a flute player in to record more tomorrow.” So we got Eimear McGeown in to record some flute solos as well. So it was informal like that! That was the first album, called Celtic Reflections. They were very happy with how it turned out in the end and people seemed to like it, so Chandos asked me to do another one. The recent one, called Celtic Airs, is a bit more expanded and we’ve got two Scottish musicians who joined us as well – a Shetland Fiddler and a Scottish harpist, Chris Stout and Catriona McKay. And so, then we recorded that second one in Cork a year ago and it was great fun. It’s a wonderful place. And now I’m putting together Celtic Orbit, the live version of that, and we’re going to expand that to have maybe 8 or 10 people singing and playing instruments. We’ll have maybe two or three tours per year.

Do you have a favourite recording that you’ve made?

I finished the Brahms cycle, which we recorded in 6 CDs. I knew most of the repertoire. But there were some smaller pieces that I discovered that were less familiar – his transcriptions of pieces by Weber, Chopin and Bach and Gluck – and he’s just done an incredible arrangement. The Weber piece, instead of the melody being in the right hand in the original, the melody’s in the left hand, so he turns it upside down. The Chopin study which is normally just in single notes, in his version it’s in 6ths. It’s very eerie and beautiful. So those pieces which are in volume 6 I’m very fond of, because it was a discovery for me. I’d never played them previously.

It’s just over 30 years since the Tchaikovsky Competitions which shot you to prominence, let’s say. Do you ever reflect on that experience? Does it affect how you play now?

Yeah, it changed my life at the time. From one day to the next, I was suddenly performing all over the world and meeting incredible conductors and going to beautiful places. I go to Russia every year, to Moscow and St. Petersburg and I have many friends there. Of course, I have very deep friendships there. Not only professional but close personal friends with Russian people. It completely changed me and to this day I feel a close bond with Russian culture. I feel very fortunate and it’s great.

Fiona who looks after our PR suggested that we bring the Russian theme to the Clandeboye Festival last year since 2016 was 30 years since the Tchaikovsky competition. So that was the catalyst and it just took off from there.

In those days, it was still the Soviet Union so it was quite a different place to Europe and of course different to how it is now. But the people were so passionate about their music and they would queue for hours to get into the competition to hear the music. Gorbachev came to the prizewinning concert and the military had to be there to escort me around because the crowds were huge! They really are so amazingly passionate and they want their favourite pianist to do well. So, it was a great time!

Let’s go back to the beginning: where did your love of music start?

My primary school held an instrumental concert featuring some of their students and that was when I told my parents I wanted to learn the piano. But I didn’t concentrate on the piano just yet because I was very fond of the clarinet and I also played the cello. I thought I’d be a clarinettist. That was actually my main ambition – to be a clarinettist. And then it was a chance meeting when I was 16 – my father met this old friend of his and he said, “You’ve got to send your son to this incredible piano teacher who’s in town, Felicitas le Winter.” She had studied with Amy von Zauer, one of Liszt’s last pupils in Weimar. And she was there in Belfast visiting her relatives because they had been Jewish émigrés. They’d fled when Hitler came into Austria and they settled in Dublin and some in Belfast. So she was coming back to see her folks. So I had a whole summer of lessons with her and this was incredible, you know, being once removed, closely allied to Liszt. I learned some amazing things from her that inspired me to become a pianist. And that’s quite late because concert artists these days are playing everything from the age of four. I could play fine, but I only really started seriously concentrating on piano at 16. It was ‘touch-and-go’ because the muscles can change and harden a bit if you haven’t been practicing all those years in childhood. I was practicing during those young years, but not to the extent of what you’d need do if you wanted to become a concert pianist. And so I had to make up for lost time.

So are you looking forward to performing in Amsterdam?

Yes. I love Amsterdam. I played twice in the Muziekgebouw. I also work with the conservatory students here and I’ve conducted their orchestra. And so of course, what Aisling has created here – this Saint Patrick’s Festival – is very exciting! And I love the Trout Quintet so it’s all pleasure.

And it’s great having you hear. Thanks for talking to us.

Thanks Rachel, it’s a pleasure!



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