Peter Donohoe – 18 June

Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.3/2
10 Preludes, Op.23
13 Preludes, Op.32

Peter Donohoe (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 18 June, 2003
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Peter Donohoe celebrated his 50th-birthday in fine style – by playing all 24 of Rachmaninov’s Preludes. If this suggests a narrow-world of invention, nothing could be further from reality. Especially revealing was to hear the better-known preludes in context; also to appreciate Rachmaninov’s debt to Chopin (and, to a lesser extent, Liszt) in the Op.23 set and, then, be aware of the sheer originality of the Op.32 collection. Each of the 24, whether derivative or forward-looking, has a distinct character.

The famous C sharp minor Prelude made an impressive start – the opening attention-grabbing chords sonorous and magnificent. Donohoe then underlined Rachmaninov’s volatility as he viscerally introduced the faster music, the change of tempo quite violent and demonically sustained until climactic matters ensued. Curious to report that concurrent with Donohoe essaying the C sharp minor, the same music, in Stokowski’s orchestration, was opening the CBSO’s concert in Birmingham. And, Peter Donohoe lives in the Midlands!

Donohoe, quite simply, gets to the heart of Rachmaninov’s music – his natural and honest response preferable to calculation, artifice and freeze-dried emotionalism. That said, not everything in Op.23 quite came off. The heroics needed for the familiar B flat didn’t necessarily gel, while the equally popular march-like G minor nearly jack-knifed. Beyond doubt though was Donohoe’s commitment and, through it, the psyche of the composer – music and personality indivisible. The wonderful D major, a continually flowering melody, was sensitively realised, while the A flat was effortlessly spun. The G flat conclusion to Op.23 made an ideal resting-place, and also a fine encore, Donohoe’s “personal favourite” among the 24.

Donohoe had seemed unsettled at times. An announcement was made just prior to part two about a hearing aid audibly whistling during the first half, and would its owner like to do something about it. While, ironically, the person concerned might have been the only one not to hear this softly-spoken request, it did underline, as I touched on in my review of Previn’s LSO concert (17 June), the impact audiences can have on concerts.

Irrespective of this, Donohoe’s traversal of Op.32 was totally secure – musically identified and technically patrician. And what original music this is – whether in rhythmic complexity or unexpected harmonies; and, not least, in aphoristic boldness, for example the strange chordal conclusion of the energetic C major that opens Op.32. 13 was lucky here – each Prelude was a highlight: the pulsating course of the E major with its off-the-cuff coda, the sequences of the succeeding E minor, or the rippling, Debussy-like G major. It would be easy to intercede on behalf of the A major’s fertile line; better, as Donohoe demonstrated, to let the strands weave their own magic. The B minor was magnificently sustained, the B major unaffected yet telling in it’s shifts of expressiveness, and the G sharp minor shimmered deceptively.

Although Rachmaninov did not originally conceive an all-the-keys cycle, the final Prelude (D flat) returns us to the very beginning with shared material and a chorale-like, rather Brahmsian summation. Maybe the final arpeggios are overdone, yet there’s no denying the sense of returning home after a significant journey. Donohoe presents this music as an entity and, as such, appreciation of it is surely intensified.

Peter Donohoe wrote his own illuminating notes for this recital. For his realisation of the music he opted for a Fazioli piano. Its blend and balance, and its translucence, were impressive, its pedal action seemingly flawless, Just once or twice its brightness seemed out of kilter with such dark-earth music. Such doubts were fleeting.

Donohoe’s 1993 EMI recording of the 24 Preludes (plus Prokofiev’s sonatas 7 and 8) is on HMV Classics HMVD 5736872 and is available only from HMV shops – well-worth seeking out.

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