Elder statesman of British pianism and soloist of international renown, Peter Donohoe gave a richly varied and, at times, highly emotional recital as part of the Southbank Centre’s ongoing International Piano Series, featuring music by Debussy, Liszt, Brahms and Bartok.
The first half was a wide-ranging musical journey, in the company of Debussy with his triptych of pieces Estampes (literally ‘prints’ or ‘engravings’), and Liszt’s Swiss travels from his first book of Années de pèlerinage. Debussy composed Estampes around the turn of the new century (1903), at a time when artists, composers and writers were swept up in the craze for all things oriental. Debussy was touched by the east, from geishas to gamelans, when he visited the Paris Exhibition of 1889, and his piece Pagodes, the first of the set, clearly shows the influence of percussive Javanese gamelans in its rigid rhythmic structures, and of oriental music in the atmospheric use of pentatonic scales.
The second piece, by contrast, is a sultry night-time scene in the Andalucian city of Granada, all strummed guitars and flirtatious gypsy rhythms, while in the third, the heat and dust of Spain are washed away as we are transported to rain-drenched gardens and the memories of a children’s song.
The music in all three is at once stately and tender, and Peter Donohoe brought to it a velvet touch, both of fingers and pedal, and a bright, shimmering tone to evoke the changing landscapes. Subtly nuanced pedaling when required, to create just the right amount of sound-wash, and perfectly judged silences made this a most arresting and delightful opening to the concert.
In Liszt’s Swiss Années… we have impressionistic music almost before the term was coined (and most commonly attached to the music of Debussy) in his set of pieces which are like ‘musical postcards’ from Switzerland: the soaring alpine landscape (‘Vallée d’Obermann’), sparkling lakes and waterfalls (‘Au bord de la source’), a raging storm (‘Orage’), as well as the homesickness of the traveller (‘Le mal du pays’), and a poignant farewell to country. However, these are not recalled images, but a real record of the composer’s travels.
As Peter Donohoe said in an interview with Radio Three ahead of the concert, these pieces are ‘very personal and visual… highly emotional for composer, performer and audience’. Donohoe’s performance was commanding – intellectually, technically and musically – with crystalline passagework, and delicate dynamic and textural shadings, in particular in the ‘water pieces’, and the Vallée d’Obermann, which was both imposing and wistful, with its impressive double octaves, evoking the grandeur of the landscape, and graceful melodic lines. This was also an intensely intimate, emotional, and concentrated performance, as evidenced by the audience’s appreciative silence at the end of the set.
We joined Brahms in his salon after the interval, for his Six Piano Pieces, Op. 118, composed during his ‘Indian summer’ of 1890, and inspired by a clarinetist. Although composed as a set, these six pieces are abstract and personal, and each is of a wildly differing character, beautifully presented by Donohoe who highlighted the mercurial nature of these works written by a composer in the autumn of his creative life: passionate, boisterous, romantic, poignant, claustrophobic, despairing. As one of my concert companions commented afterwards, one had the sense of emotions only just reined in, as if Brahms were channeling many overwhelming feelings into these exquisitely structured piano miniatures; this was perfectly expressed in Donohoe’s sensitive playing, which was by turns powerful and tender.
Back to the countryside, this time in Hungary, for Bartok’s Piano Sonata, a work of intense, almost limitless, primitive energy with its elements of folksongs ‘gone wild’, briefly relieved by a middle movement marked ‘Sostenuto e pesante’ (‘sustained and heavy’). Again, Peter Donohoe’s remarkable sensitivity of touch and rhythmic vitality were evident throughout the performance. At the end of the final movement, he stood up from the piano immediately, as the final notes were casually tossed out to the audience.
The closing ‘postcard’ of the evening was, appropriately, Debussy’s enchanting l’isle joyeuse, an encore played with a sparkling delicacy and warmth.