Peter Donohoe at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire review


Royal Birmingham Conservatoire *****

A former winner and more recently jury member of Moscow's Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, Peter Donohoe has always been closely attuned to Russian music. This totally involving evening of romantic music gave us a major Tchaikovsky rarity, alongside more familiar fare.
Donohoe's relish for acute contrasts makes him an ideal interpreter of Schumann. He opened with the youthful "Abegg Variations", before launching into a ferocious performance of the composer's "Toccata ". With its ceaseless semiquavers, superhuman octaves, forests of chromaticisms, and conflicting cross-rhythms, this was thoroughly exhilarating, and a demonstration that Donohoe's technique has such thoroughbred robustness that no music seems to hold any fears for it.
Given the seemingly indestructible popularity of the B-flat Piano Concerto, it is strange that we hear Tchaikovsky's solo piano music so seldom in concert. The large-scale, majestic "Grande Sonate in G major" is Tchaikovsky's most significant solo work for piano, but it is rarely played. Donohoe obviously believes in it, and he gave an intense, powerful, and thoroughly absorbing performance. However the sonata is not entirely satisfying.
After its magnificent chordal opening, and an initial theme which is threaded through all four movements, the work settles into a sort of march whose progress is constantly interrupted by destabilising fortissimo eruptions, which then subside into uneasy lyrical episodes. Donohoe's great skill made the block - like piano writing sound pianistically idiomatic, but the movement's energy seemed always to be being subverted.
The melancholy second movement lent itself much more gratefully to Tchaikovsky's natural lyric gift and the ghost of Schumann hovered over the dazzlingly delivered scherzo.
But after the Sturm und Drang of the preceding movements the finale was something of a puzzle. The boiling syncopations of the opening had barely settled down before there was an urgent climax, a gradual slackening, then a perfunctory exit, and the sonata concluded without the work's underlying tensions being resolved.
After the interval came the best account of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an exhibition" I have ever heard in concert.
All of Donohoe's special gifts of colour, energy and power gave a clear vision for each movement to shape their individual characters. The Promenades between each picture were coloured differently at every appearance each leading us to the next delight, and the whole work moved inexorably from its entrance to its finale as The Great Gate of Kiev (or as Donohoe suggested, the Gates of Paradise for artist Hartmann) opened majestically, with a tumult of bells surrounding its Russian Orthodox incantations.
John Gough

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