“It’s All About Piano!” is a weekend festival of all things piano held at the French Institute. Launched in 2013, it is going from strength to strength and this year has attracted some big names from the international piano world, including Peter Donohoe, Angela Hewitt, François-Frédéric Guy and Cyprien Katsaris. The festival offers concerts, masterclasses and talks, family events and more. The Bistro at the Institut français is open all day, with jazz piano and a convivial atmosphere. This was my first visit to “It’s All About Piano!” and I was impressed not only by the line up of international artists, but also the variety of music on offer. The eclectic programming is due to the efforts of Françoise Clerc, head of classical music at the Institut français, who has free rein in selecting who and what is performed.

Peter Donohoe © Sussie Ahlburg
Peter Donohoe
© Sussie Ahlburg

The piano music of Olivier Messiaen is not performed enough for my taste, partly because there aren’t that many pianists around who are willing to tackle it. One notable exception is British pianist Peter Donohoe, who studied with Messiaen’s second wife Yvonne Loriod, and who played the composer’s music to the composer himself during his studies in Paris in the 1970s.

The concert was originally to include the London première of La Fauvette Passerinette, a work fully sketched by Messiaen in 1961 which was discovered by Peter Hill, who worked with Messiaen between 1986 and 1991, and which Hill completed in 2012. Sadly, Peter Hill was unwell, and so the work was introduced by Elaine Gould from Faber Music and Peter Donohoe, who played brief, appetite-whetting extracts, and relayed some interesting and entertaining anecdotes of his studies with Monsieur and Madame Messiaen, and his experiences of performing Messiaen’s music.

Peter Donohoe's first encounter with Messiaen’s oeuvre came in the 1970s when he attended a Prom at which the Turangalîla-Symphonie was performed. It was this work that inspired him to become a performing musician rather than a musicologist. Donohoe’s affinity and affection for this music is evident in his lyrical and sensitive playing, and his ability to switch seamlessly between the myriad worlds of sound, rhythm and mood which Messiaen creates in his music.

Benjamin Frith, another Messiaen specialist, stepped in at very short notice to play Peter Hill’s part in the Visions de l’Amen. He and Donohoe only had a 90-minute rehearsal before the concert, but none of this mattered, for this was a performance of great poise, intensity, tonal colour and vitality, as the two pianists came together to create a pianistic percussion orchestra, which recalled chiming carillons, plangent tolling bells and the gongs and gamelans of Indonesia. Their performance, jointly and individually, was rich in clarity, musical understanding, lyricism and theatre.

The work was composed in 1943, shortly after Messiaen was released from a prisoner of war camp, and the creative stimulus came from Yvonne Loriod, a highly talented student at the Paris Conservatoire where Messiaen was a professor. The work was the first of his many collaborations with Yvonne Loriod, who later became his second wife, and they gave a semi-secret première that year in Nazi-occupied Paris. Both parts are challenging, the first (Loriod’s) being rhythmically complex and virtuosic, while the second (Messiaen’s) demands more physical power. Both combine to explore sonorities never before heard on the piano.

Like the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (composed and premiered while Messiaen was in the prisoner of war camp) and the Vingts regards sur l’enfant Jésus (1944, also composed for Loriod), the Visions de l’Amen explore themes fundamental to Messiaen’s life and work: his deep Catholic faith and his personal responses to it, ranging from contemplation and reflection to awe, ecstasy, fulfilment and joy. These are combined with Messiaen’s other preoccupations, including cosmology, ornithology, metaphysics, surrealist art, his synaesethesia (particular colour associations with musical keys and harmonies), and ancient Greek and Hindu chants and scripts. These elements are expressed in the music through the use of canons, rhythmic pedals, “signature” chord sequences and harmonic resonances, and cyclic themes.

In this performance, Peter Donohoe took Loriod’s part, where in the opening Amen (“Amen de la Creation”) simple chords representing clanging bells are given life by the creation theme which rises from the deep registers of second piano (Benjamin Frith taking Messiaen’s part) in one long, intense crescendo. In the “Amen des étoiles, de la planète a l’anneau” (Amen of the stars, of the ringed planet), Frith offered a muscular and energetic dance of the planets, before the mood shifted dramatically to the portentous lament of the “Amen de l’agonie de Jésus”, whose chords, voiced with precision and sensitivity by both pianists, recall tam-tams and gongs. The longest movement, “Amen du désir”, is a tender song, beautifully nuanced by Donohoe and Frith, which dissolves into passionate exuberance with a sweeping theme reminiscent of 1930s jazz. In the “Amen des Anges, des Saints et des chants d’oiseaux”, birdsong and heavenly music combine in sparkling pianistic effects.

The final Amen (“Amen de la Consolation”) draws on the theme of Creation from the opening movement and is an ecstatic finale of pealing bells, tinkling, jarring carillons, glittering passagework and scintillating rhythms which recreate the colourful precious stones mentioned in the Book of Revelation. This was a most absorbing and uplifting performance, whose movements were superbly paced to fully express the composer’s vision.

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