Peter Donohoe, Royal Festival Hall, London
Monday 03 November 2003
To open another series of piano recitals on the South Bank - and, incidentally, to celebrate his 50th birthday - Peter Donohoe chose a programme that might have been set as a test of any pianist's versatility. He himself said that he hoped that the combination of pieces represented his musical personality - or, he might have said, his several selves.
He began with the last-but-one of Brahms's late sets of pieces, the six of Op 118, launching the first with a sense of massive grandeur, rather than the mobile urgency that it is possible to read into it. The second, a very tender piece, sang out broadly rather than taking us into its confidence. Yet it was the quieter contrasting sections of the next two pieces that, in their understated way, compelled attention. If you had to summarise Donohoe's view of such diverse music, it would be something like rock-like stoicism, summed up in the massive climax of the final Intermezzo, derived from its desolate opening idea.
If stoicism implies, in musical terms, reliably sustained tempos, it must be said that much of the programme was far from stoic. In both outer movements of Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata, there were passages in which Donohoe's digital fluency seemed to run ahead of any human brain. This sometimes made for rhythmic confusion, and scale passages in the right hand were so fast they almost became glissandos.
Towards the end of the finale, perversely, the double-octave descents, which are sometimes played as glissandos, were beautifully articulated as proper scales, which goes to show that Donohoe's outstanding technical facility serves the music at certain times better than others. In all, though, this was a Waldstein with more speed and violence than spiritual depth.
After the interval came a rather unexpected choice in César Franck's Prélude, Aria et Final, the lesser known of his two piano triptychs. A wiseacre once said that Franck wrote organ music for the piano and piano music for the organ, and there's certainly something hard and bony about the central movement of this work, as if it needed the padding that an organ would provide. The outer movements, though, are too full of notes to make that desirable, and Donohoe pressed them so hard they lost the breadth and majesty he had so effectively brought to Brahms.
Almost inevitably, in a programme as comprehensive as possible, there had to be something by Chopin and Liszt. Chopin's C sharp minor Scherzo travelled rather too much like an express train for my liking, though the Berceuse restored a sense of repose, and led nicely into "Gondoliera", the first of three pieces in Liszt's Venezia e Napoli, ending with a frighteningly fast Tarantella.
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