Peter Donohoe’s recital programme at Sage Gateshead Hall One was a selection of vividly colourful pieces, all of them packed with fireworks, but they were delivered without any trace of distracting showmanship in either the music or his own gestures: simply the quiet assurance of a performer who can let the notes speak for themselves. There was no shortage of passion, but it was never allowed to overwhelm Donohoe’s clean and measured delivery.

Peter Donohoe © Sussie Ahlburg
Peter Donohoe
© Sussie Ahlburg

Donohoe undertook a marathon Scriabin session last year, performing and recording all of the sonatas, and he gave us a taste of that project with one of the more approachable of the set, Sonata no. 2 “Sonata-Fantasie”. The first of the two movements began dreamily, as if the balmy seashore that it depicts were just a memory, or something in the distance, and the picture gradually came into focus as the music unfolded and Donohoe strengthened his touch on the keys. The delicacy of this first movement exploded into visceral excitement in the second. The volume was never loud, and instead of straightforward storms and terror, Donohoe loaded the music with the adrenaline rush of huge waves.

The five pieces in Ravel’s Miroirs each hold up a reflection of one of Ravel’s friends, beginning with Noctuelles (Moths) for a famously nocturnal character. Donohoe fluttered seductively around the keyboard, with immaculately crisp playing ensuring that the sweetness of this movement never became cloying. Each piece in Miroirs had its own distinctive touch of colour enhanced by Donohoe: brittle bird trills at the top of the keyboard in Oiseaux Tristes; a restless but wonderfully smooth legato for more sea effects in Une barque sur l’océan and a semi-crazed hyperactivity for the quirky excitement of Alborada del gracioso. The set ended with a mesmerising account of la vallée des cloches, in which Donohoe’s rubato set up hints of the randomness and unpredictability of chiming bells, as did the slow dying away of the final chord.

There were two youthful, sunny works to cleanse the palate mid-way through the concert. Schumann’s Abegg Variations were originally programmed for after the the interval, but Donohoe announced that he was moving them forward to the end of the first half: a sensible decision that made for a much more balanced concert. Donohoe’s performance sparkled with wit and cleared the air after the headiness of the Ravel and Scriabin. Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 1 after the interval was similarly refreshing in the cheerful outer movements, although I thought Donohoe rather dashed through the final Allegro as though he wanted to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. The lilting middle movement offered an enjoyable moment of stillness amid a fairly frenetic programme.

Donohoe also took the fast movements of closing piece, Schubert’s A Major Sonata, D.959, at a good pace, propelled by a good momentum, but while still allowing space for Schubert’s moments of tenderness to breathe through. The opening section of second movement was particularly beautiful, and Donohoe played it as if it were being sung out in one unbroken breath. The memory of this lovely opening lingered through the more passionate music that followed until broken up by the Donohoe’s violence in the interjectory right hand chords, and he ended the movement with a sense of looking for something that had been lost forever. He quickly shook off this dark mood for a delightfully chirpy Scherzo that quickly veered away from any hint of excess emotion.

The final Rondo theme appeared initially to be mostly hidden behind the fluid accompaniment, but as the movement developed, Donohoe gradually brought it out and developed it, as Schubert experiments with different emotions. There was calm, followed by quiet triumph, and finally a synthesis of everything that had gone before, as Donohoe allowed the theme to find its home in space and generous silences, before the final little burst of fireworks.

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