Piano Sonatas 1-3
Peter Donohoe (piano)
Recorded in May & December 2004 in Potton Hall, Suffolk
Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler
Reviewed: February 2006
CD No: NAXOS 8.557611
Duration: 54 minutes
Tippett’s four piano sonatas span nearly as long a period of his career as his five string quartets. No 1 is one of his earliest published works, originally from 1938, and revised four years later; the last dates from the mid-1980s.
The First Sonata has all the freshness and exuberance of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Donohoe brings a tremendous bounce and spring to the jazzy rhythms and makes the more lyrical passages really sing. The first movement’s scherzando fourth variation positively sparkles, while the second movement, based on the Scottish folk-song, “Ca’ the yowes”, has a real sense of inwardness. One minor disappointment: in the last movement, Donohoe ignores the diminuendo over the final cadence, so that one of Tippett’s most delightful throwaway endings goes for less than it might.
The single-movement Second Sonata dates from 1962, and much has been made, over the years, of its links with the opera “King Priam”, reflecting the hard-edged sound and discontinuous, mosaic-like structures he developed in that score. Donohoe pulls no punches in the work’s grittier sections, generating all the power and energy Tippett asks for, but the limpid clarity of his playing in the gentler passages also points up how much of the earlier lyrical manner Tippett retained in this new phase of his career.
Tippett said that he started Sonata No 3, from 1973, as a relaxation following the strenuous effort that went into his Third Symphony, only to find it turning into what he called his “late Beethoven” sonata. It’s a big work: two quick movements – in which Donohoe explores a rich vein of caprice and fantasy – surrounding a slow set of variations about as long as the two outer movements put together. Tippett always claimed to be a mediocre pianist at best, but this central movement, in particular, shows how much he understood about making the piano resonate. Donohoe’s unhurried exploration of these magical sonorities contrasts effectively with the relaxed dynamism and drive he brings to the rest of the sonata.
The piano – a warm sound but with perhaps a touch of hardness in the treble – is vividly captured. Let’s hope Naxos has plans to record Donohoe in Tippett’s Sonata No 4.