Peter Donohoe

Concert date: 20 September 2019
Reviewed by: JRC

Nadsa concerts were lucky to get Peter Donohoe, between his international schedule, to open their 2019/20 season of concerts at Newton Abbot. His programme spanned the periods of music composed for harpsichord, to impressionism, and was all the more interesting for containing some less frequently performed works. The concert had a capacity audience including the Mayor of Newton Abbot and his wife.

Peter’s launch into Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 9 was spirited and nuanced in both tempo and touch. The Andante took on a different life, being almost conversational, whereas the more technically demanding Rondo was fast and vivacious.

The audience was probably aware that Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata is not well known. However, it was good that Peter shared with us some knowledge from his considerable experience both as an international performer and competition judge. He told us that this piece used to be set as a ‘required piece’ in piano competitions, but that now it is rarely heard, even in Russia. Maybe it has something to do with its enigmatic ending.

However prepared one may have been for an ‘enigmatic ending’, there is perhaps little one could have done to prepare for the startling hammered and insistent chords which opened the first movement. Drama abounded, not least in that there were contrasting lyrical sections even before the Andante second movement where the mood became more meditative. The following Scherzo lightened us with speed and delicacy. The Finale was fast, even frenetic, with dramatic contrasts, and yes, the ending was undeniably odd.

Peter related how Haydn has been overshadowed by Mozart, and that, of the 52 Sonatas Haydn wrote, Peter maintains this Keyboard Sonata No. 31 in A flat, is one of the 4 best. He took the first movement at considerable speed, with rubato and nuanced touch. It left me wondering how he would have played that if it had been marked just Allegro instead of Allegro moderato! The Adagio, by contrast, was sedate and pensive with at times a little cantabile and a sustained lushness that would never have been possible on a harpsichord. I guess Haydn would have approved. The Finale Presto was licence indeed for fast fun.

Ravel, Peter said, was greatly affected by World War I, and he reckons that there is a deep sadness pervading all five of his Miroirs suite [anticipatory, since this suite was published in 1906 well before the outbreak of WWI in 1914]. Ravel had given a title to each of the five pieces. In spite of superficial appearances of ‘Morning song of the Jester’, Peter reminded us about Pagliacci, that he was a sad clown, and that this is possibly the saddest piece of the suite. However, he said, ‘The Valley of Bells’ is best.

‘Night Moths’ was characterised by bursts of energy and flight in swirls of frenetic darting, whereas ‘Sad Birds’ was memorable for plaintive calls. ‘A Boat on the Ocean’ gave us expanding ripples, swelling phrases and crashing waves. And then came the most virtuosic piece ‘Morning song of the Jester’. If one were not blinded by the drama of keeping it all in the air, interludes of doubt and edge were there. How strange to end a concert with ‘The Valley of Bells’, sombre and disconcertingly effective.

We were given an encore “to lighten the mood”, and who would have thought that a little piece by Tchaikovsky would do that. A concert full of surprises.

Peter Donohoe stayed after the concert to sign CDs, more of which were purchased than at any other NADSA concert. Obviously this was an occasion people wanted to remember.JRC