A Compelling Recital by Peter Donohoe

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Wagner, Liszt: Peter Donohoe (piano). Three Choirs Festival, St. Mary de Lode, Gloucester, 27.7.2013. (JQ)

Schumann: Variations on the name ‘Abegg’; Fantasie in C
Wagner: Isoldens Liebestod (arr. Liszt)
Liszt: Sonata in B minor

On the opening day of the 2013 Three Choirs Festival Peter Donohoe offered a thoughtfully constructed and superbly executed programme in this piano recital. The recital was to have taken place in the recently refurbished Blackfriars Hall but for some reason there was a switch of venue to the small church of St. Mary de Lode near the cathedral. This small church is the oldest parish church in the city of Gloucester and it is regularly used both for worship and for small-scale concerts. It’s a lovely, intimate venue for a recital and it proved an ideal location for Mr Donohoe’s recital.

The underlying theme of much of the programme was love. In this context the inclusion of the Wagner item spoke for itself. From the excellent programme note by Malcolm Hayes we learned that the ‘Abegg’ Variations may have been linked to Schumann’s romantic pursuit of a young pianist, Meta Abegg. If so, presumably that was before he fell under the spell of Clara Wieck and Peter Donohoe believes, rightly, I’m sure, that much of the music in the great C major Fantasie is a love song to Clara. Perhaps the Liszt sonata did not fit into this love-inspired scheme but it more than justified its inclusion since it meant that each half of the programme ended with, and was dominated by, what Peter Donohoe regards as a pre-eminent work in the Romantic piano repertoire.

The first half was an all-Schumann affair. In the ‘Abegg’ Variations Schumann treats his graceful theme to a succession of four variations and a fantasia finale. The writing in the variations is often highly virtuosic and the music is mainly extrovert and good-natured. Donohoe’s playing was dexterous and sparkling and at the end he brought off Schumann’s almost cheeky pay-off delightfully.

The C major Fantasie is a work of great reach and ambition: notwithstanding its title it is in many respects closer to a three-movement sonata. In the first movement Peter Donohoe brought out both the strength and the poetry in Schumann’s writing. In his hands the music had a truly rhapsodic quality and was projected as a great outpouring of Romantic invention. I loved the way he achieved the movement’s reflective close. The second movement is impulsive in nature and Donohoe‘s playing was full of verve. The helter-skelter conclusion, where Schumann’s teeming invention almost seems to run away with itself, occasioned some particularly exciting playing and drew murmurs of appreciation from the audience. In some brief remarks before playing the Fantasie Peter Donohoe had referred to the work’s third movement as one of the greatest pieces in the entire piano repertoire. That’s certainly how it sounded here. From the gentle musings at the start he built the music most impressively, gradually increasing its strength and power. Not for the first time in the recital – nor for the last time – I admired the depth of his tone, which was just as impressive whether he was playing loudly or softly. His performance of this tremendous, ardent movement was commanding and poetic.

The second half began with Liszt’s transcription of the end of Tristan und Isolde. Sometimes I find Liszt’s transcriptions over-elaborate but this one seems very effective. Donohoe brought out all the passion in the music and in a marvellously controlled and calibrated way. Here again the depth of bass tone that he drew from the Steinway was very satisfying. He gave a performance that was orchestral in its fullness, especially at the great climax.

The playing during the first three items in the programme had been consistently excellent but one felt that Donohoe reserved his very best for the Liszt Sonata. Such are the demands of the last movement of the Schumann Fantasie that he had warned us beforehand that he might be “a gibbering wreck” by the end: he wasn’t. However, Liszt’s mighty sonata requires even more from a performer, both intellectually and in terms of physical endeavour, but here we had a pianist who was equal to every challenge posed by Liszt. The first of the four linked movements was often powerful, indeed tumultuous. In this performance yet Donohoe was just as impressive in the passages where Liszt requires delicacy from his pianist: in these sections Donohoe’s finesse was admirable. He exhibited a delicate touch and much imagination in the way he delivered the second movement. This was a very Romantic traversal of the music and the powerfully projected climax was intense and passionate. After this, however, the way in which the delicate ruminations of the last few pages were delivered was both involving and satisfying. Donohoe gave a gripping and exciting reading of the driving music of the third movement before unleashing a towering account of the final movement. The great rhetorical climax near the end was projected with huge power and weight after which Liszt’s quiet revisiting of his material in the closing pages was an especially rewarding finis to a compelling account of the sonata.

In response to a richly-deserved ovation Peter Donohoe played another Liszt piece, one of his own favourites. The rapturous ‘Spozalizio’ from the second book of the Années de pèlerinages, superbly and sensitively played, was the ideal encore at the end of a compelling recital.

John Quinn