Dynamic Donohoe Tackles Demanding Rachmaninov with Relish

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky: Peter Donohoe (piano), Welsh National Opera Orchestra, Xian Zhang (conductor). St David’s Hall, Cardiff. 12.11.2015 (PCG)

Rachmaninov – Vocalise
Piano Concerto No 3
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No 4


This latest instalment in the ongoing Rachmaninov series of concerts in Cardiff fully lived up to the standards of its predecessors. The programme here included the Third Piano Concerto (which now surely bids fair to outdistance in popularity the Second) in a stunning performance by Peter Donohoe, and I can only imagine that the fact that this was the third presentation of the work in the last two years at the St David’s Hall could account for the less than capacity audience – considerably less than that for the Rachmaninov Second Symphony last week. But at all events Donohoe gave one of those performances, unfortunately rare in the concert hall, with which it was impossible to find fault. Every note was in place, and the most extreme demands in the score (he played the original version without cuts and with the more difficult of the two alternative cadenzas with its torrential fistfuls of rushing chords) caused him no difficulty whatsoever. If one could cavil at anything, it was the fact that he started the finale at such a lick that the triplet figurations were not ideally clear, and left little room for the observation of the composer’s marking Piu mosso a couple of minutes into the movement. But the results were exciting in the extreme, and we really should not complain. Donohoe managed to make himself heard even through Rachmaninov’s heaviest scoring – no mean feat in itself – and the orchestra under the dynamic baton of the diminutive Xian Zhang (she was dwarfed by him during their acknowledgements of the applause) relished the writing with panache, including included the woodwind skirls in the finale which Rachmaninov marks ad lib). Before the concerto the conductor had given a beautifully poised rendition of the Vocalise, delightfully and subtly inflected without killing the music with over-indulgence. Given a performance like this, with winsome playing from woodwind and strings, the Vocalise becomes something to cherish. A similar care for dynamics was evident in the concerto, and Zhang is clearly a conductor to be reckoned with; the orchestra responded well to her lead.

I have complained before about the failure of soloists to announce to the audience what they are performing by way of an encore and, although I have been assured by the hall’s management that they would ask artists to do this. The name of Peter Donohoe unfortunately falls to be added to the list of offenders. I thought that what we heard was one of the Rachmaninov Preludes, which would have been appropriate, but it took a telephone call to the Welsh National Opera to establish that it was actually the Prelude in D, Op.23/4 – and that after some research by them. I don’t imagine that many of the audience would necessarily gave recognised it either (my companion, who actually plays some of the Rachmaninov preludes, didn’t) but it really would be nice to let listeners know in advance.

In the second half of the programme Xian Zhang gave a triumphant performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which apart from an unfortunate momentary ‘blip’ near the beginning was also superbly realised. She properly retained the full woodwind section doubling the trumpets at the reappearance of the ‘Fate’ motif in the last movement (it is frequently omitted, especially in Russian performances, which gives no credit to the composer’s carefully judged scoring). I do however wish that some conductor would at some time maintain the momentum in this movement without inserted unauthorised pauses after the massive orchestral climaxes at bars 60 and 149 in the score; I realise the desire to make certain that the quiet entries immediately afterwards are not overhung with reverberation, but it does rob the music of its relentless onward drive which should not really be interrupted until the appearance of the ‘Fate’ theme like a spectre at the feast. And the piano strings at the beginning of the pizzicato scherzo were just too quiet to really make an impact until some bars into the movement. But again these are very minor considerations in the context of a generally superb performance, where again the players responded marvellously to the dynamism of the conductor. One example of her superb control came in the same scherzo, where the entry of the brass was taken at just the right speed to avoid the piccolo counterpoint becoming a desperate gabble, as can sometimes happen; and the player Barbara Brown managed this difficult passage with deceptive ease and plenty of character. The audience cheered all the performers in this concert to the rafters, and quite rightly so.

In past seasons the Welsh National Opera Orchestra have linked their concert performances to the theme of the operas they are performing at the time, and this has produced programmes including many welcome rarities as well as shedding interesting insights on more familiar works. I am not sure whether this policy is being abandoned (the programme notes drew no such parallels on this occasion), but if the result is experiences of this quality and excitement I am not complaining. And while it is perhaps too easy to take for granted the superlative abilities of a well-established artist like Peter Donohoe; the evident future potential of a conductor like the young Xian Zhang is equally exciting to encounter.


Paul Corfield Godfrey


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