The excellent ongoing Piano Series at the Turner Sims turned to Prokofiev and his trilogy of “War” sonatas, works which once won drew acclaim in legendary performances by Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. They are now meat and drink to celebrated pianist Peter Donohoe, who played them at a single sitting. These are bravura works, comprising music of bruising physicality and here, following on from the release of his complete cycle of Prokofiev’s sonatas, they were given blistering performances.

Peter Donohoe © Olivier Fleury
Peter Donohoe
© Olivier Fleury

Particularly impressive was Donohoe’s ease of communication when introducing each work, making clear his passion for them with humour and illuminating insights. Chief amongst these was the idea that the sonatas (drafted in 1938 and completed in 1946) need not be evocations of war, nor even portrayals of Stalinist terror, but could simply be regarded as depictions of a developing industrialisation within 20th-century Russia.

Encouraged to keep an open mind, Donohoe launched into the first of the group; Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major. Here was music of vibrant, obsessive rhythms juxtaposed – seemingly on a whim – with gentle reflection, to which Donohue brought cohesion and plenty of tonal variety. The “Allegretto” was suitably impish, and in the “Valse” – where moods can be abruptly abandoned – there was always a sense of logic, even when its brooding main theme searched for resolution. Prokofiev’s closing “Vivace” allows for no prisoners in its ferocious demands, and here Donohue’s hands chased one another across the keys in a devilish display of virtuosity. In the music’s feverish agitation it’s not always clear as to whether Prokofiev is being sardonic or clowning around in musical acrobatics, in a way reminiscent of the piano concertos. But, whatever the mood, Donohoe managed to pull off a breathtaking performance.

Piano Sonata no. 7 in B flat major is one of Prokofiev’s most frequently played and arguably the most immediately accessible of the War sonatas. Its combination of dazzling pyrotechnics, cocktail bar lyricism and percussive effects give it a special appeal. Once again Donohoe’s hands fearlessly braved its homicidal octaves, and yet there was still consideration of dynamics and articulation. There was no lingering in the central movement, his lack of indulgence avoiding the sense of kitsch into which others have been tempted. The concluding “Precipitato” is a toccata of concentrated percussive music (redolent of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring) which Donohoe described as being amongst Prokofiev’s “most audacious piano writing”. It’s a workout for the fingers like no other and was delivered with bewildering accuracy, Donohoe pounding the keyboard with cool precision.

After the interval, Donohoe took on the mighty Piano Sonata no. 8 in B flat major – referring to it as “one of the greatest piano works in history”. Another juggernaut of a piece demanding technique and stamina, this “Everest” of a Sonata was surmounted with Donohoe’s customary unflappable approach. Its patch-work ideas always found reconciliation under this pianist’s ever- present musicality.

As an encore we heard Prokofiev’s unfinished Sonata No. 10 – two and a half minutes long and abruptly stopping in the middle of a bar – a comic end to a stupendous recital.