Peter Donohoe

French Suite in G, BWV816
The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I [Selections]
Opus XVI [world premiere]
Sonata in E, Op.109

Peter Donohoe (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 15 June, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

When at the piano, Peter Donohoe reminded me of the sketch of Brahms seated at the keyboard. Donohoe is large, broad-built and burly. His playing style is large and formidable.

During the French Suite, Donohoe turned the piano into an orchestra. The opening was grandly inauthentic, reminiscent of Bach from the era of Busoni. The dances were exuberant, varied, emphatic and brisk – over-emphasised, yet grand. Then post-Busoni scholarship made its mark. The speeds were fast and exhilarating: the ‘Sarabande’ was a tripping andante and the Gigue so speedy as to be non-danceable. Authenticity was to the fore.

I admired, too, Donohoe’s skill with the pedal. Simple linear phrases were played emphatically – without pedal. He pedalled two or three voices lightly: the sound remained clear and the lines distinguishable. In loud passages, especially climaxes, his sustained pedal produced an organ-like cloud of sound; even so the part writing he chose to emphasise remained distinguishable and resonant. This was no mean feat.

Many of these features were evident in the Preludes and Fugues from Book I of the ‘48’. I gained the impression of a pianist who found it most natural to play loudly, forcefully, grandly and fast. Occasionally, though, Donohoe played too fast to demonstrate contrapuntal points adequately. Softness, lightness and quietness required more effort from him. A special commendation, then, for his lightness in the Prelude in E flat and the quiet sustained sorrow of the Fugue in D sharp minor. The A minor Fugue – rapid, loud and pedalled – burst about the Hall like boxes of fireworks set alight at the same time, proclaiming the piano’s grander qualities unashamedly and to the full.

Christiane Boesch’s Opus XVI held much interest. She is Swiss-born and her music is very evidently French, especially in its limpid, laconic counterpoint. The piece consists of four movements entitled ‘essai’, each containing an old tune from two different cultures: Japanese-Berber; Indian-African; Hebrew-Arab; Iranian-Chinese. Spare statements opened the first three. The fourth ‘essai’ plunged in straightway. The first was not unmindful of Debussy and Ravel; the second recalled Poulenc and the fourth, Messiaen. The third was rather more its own mistress.

Beethoven’s Opus 109 was a majestic affair, too. In the first movement Donohoe took time to emphasise key changes; the slower sections had a dignity all their own. The scherzo was a whirlwind of impassioned vigour and speed; it is a rare delight to hear such genuinely driven force. The last movement had magnificence without heartbreak.

Donohoe’s playing of the Messiaen, undoubtedly the most difficult work of the evening, was a tour de force. The speeds seemed relentless and the technical demands ferocious. At one point, Donohoe seemed close to using his wrists like mallets in order to pound the required volume out of the piano. The weight of his arms counted, here. The final section – fff – brought more noise out of the piano than one might have thought possible.

The performance was immense – and wildly acclaimed.

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