Pounding the 26 miles from Greenwich Park to The Mall wasn't the only marathon in London today. At Milton Court, Peter Donohoe ran his own marathon – albeit from the safety of the piano stool – tackling all ten sonatas by Alexander Scriabin. The Russian pianist-composer's route took us from lush romanticism to weird mysticism, often in highly perfumed musical language which can be difficult to penetrate. Helping us navigate a sometimes disorientating route – the sonatas weren't played in chronological order – was Gerard McBurney, providing readings, mostly of texts by the composer's great friend, Leonid Sabaneyev.

Peter Donohoe © Olivier Fleury
Peter Donohoe
© Olivier Fleury

There was no question of Donohoe pacing himself through the afternoon, hurling into the rugged, romantic First Sonata with fervour. Dynamic contrasts throughout were boldly gradated, from the wistful chorale of the slow movement to the thunderous left hand octaves of the Presto. In the “Black Mass” Ninth – to be performed “as if practising witchcraft” according to McBurney's reading – Donohoe balanced demonic force with feathery tone. Incense swirled in formless clouds around the heady Seventh, the “White Mass” Sonata, bass bells chiming through its highly chromatic score, full of tritonal harmony and rippling arpeggios, beautifully played.

The Sonata no. 2 in G sharp minor – inspired by the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and even the English Channel – lived up to its “game of colours and shadows” billing, its tender moonlight giving way to storm-tossed spume, ferocious, yet clearly articulated. The F sharp minor Third Sonata, describing the struggles of the soul, ended in a fiery plunge into the abyss.

Scriabin was, like his friend and fellow composer Rimsky-Korsakov, a synesthete, ascribing colours to different musical keys. He even invented a clavier à lumières for use in his Prometheus, Poem of Fire, to flood the concert hall with coloured lights. For this recital, we were promised the aural experience would be “enhanced” by the projections of designer Mike Tutaj. During the Sonata no. 1 in F minor, the stage was duly bathed in a halo of blue light. Yet for Scriabin, the key of F (major and minor) was associated with deep red, so the choice of colours seemed arbitrary. Apart from a crimson glow in the Third Sonata and abstract yellow squiggles daubed during the Tenth, these projections were largely insipid. Sepia photographs of the composer and the Moscow Conservatoire enhanced McBurney's introductions more than the lighting enhanced the musical performances.

The programme was presented in three parts, with two intervals to recover and reflect on what we'd just heard. McBurney's readings helped place the “cult” of Scriabin in context and guided the listener through these dense, but short, mystical scores. There were humorous anecdotes, particularly about Scriabin's apparent unease in the countryside, delivered engagingly.

To use sporting parlance, "at the end of the day", Kenyan athlete Daniel Wanjiru won the London Marathon in marginally less time than it takes to play the complete Scriabin sonatas. Yet Donohoe's effort was just as herculean, even if he shouldn't be suffering from any foot blisters in the morning.