Wednesday 15 June 2016

An unbeatable disc from Somm Recordings brings masterly performances by Peter Donohoe of Prokofiev’s 6th, 7th and 8th sonatas with many insights and subtleties as well as power, authority and impressive musicianship

Silver Medal winner of the 7th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1982, Peter Donohoe has gone on to establish himself as one of the world finest pianists.

Peter Donohoe studied at Chetham’s School of Music before studying composition with Alexander Goehr at Leeds University, where he studied, and piano with Derek Wyndham at the Royal Northern College of Music. He then went on to study in Paris with Olivier Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod. His prize-winning performances at the British Liszt Competition in London in 1976, the Bartok-Liszt Piano Competition in Budapest in the same year and the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1981 helped build a major career in the UK and Europe.

Since then his he has built an extraordinary world-wide career, encompassing a huge repertoire and performing with the world’s finest conductors and orchestras. He is a keen chamber musician, performs frequently with the pianist Martin Roscoe and has made recordings with the Maggini Quartet of several great British chamber works.

Peter Donohoe is vice-president of the Birmingham Conservatoire and has been awarded Honorary Doctorates of Music from the Universities of Birmingham, Central England, Warwick, East Anglia, Leicester and The Open University. He was awarded a CBE for services to music in the 2010 New Year’s Honours List. In June 2011 he returned to Moscow as a jury member for the 14th International Tchaikovsky Competition.

He has made many fine recordings on EMI Records, which have won awards including the Grand Prix International du Disque Liszt for his recording of the Liszt Sonata in B minor and the Gramophone Concerto award for the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 2.  For Naxos he undertaken a major series of recordings aimed to raise the public's awareness of the British piano concerto repertoire including composers such as Alan Rawsthorne, Sir Arthur Bliss, Christian Darnton, Alec Rowley, Howard Ferguson, Roberta Gerhard, Kenneth Alwyn, Thomas Pitfield, John Gardner and Hamilton Harty.

His recordings of Messiaen with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble for Chandos Records and Henry Litolff for Hyperion have also received widespread acclaim. His recording of Brahms’ 1st Concerto with Svetlanov and the Philharmonia Orchestra was voted best available recording by the US magazine Stereo Review.

Peter Donohoe’s latest release for Somm Recordings  is the concluding volume of his series of recordings of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonatas. This new disc includes all three of what are known as the war sonatas, No’s 6, 7 and 8.


Prokofiev’s piano sonatas form an important part of his compositional output spanning the whole period of his adult life. Indeed, a few days before his death, his creative spark still undimmed, he asked his wife to write down the titles of the seven last works in his complete catalogue. This included Concerto No.6 for two pianos and orchestra and a cello sonata, both left as sketches; new editions of his fifth piano sonata and second symphony; Piano Sonata No. 10 and Piano Sonata No.11. His tenth sonata was left incomplete and the eleventh unwritten. It does, however, indicate his continued interest in the piano sonata form right to the end.

Donohoe bring a real musical strength to the opening of the Allegro moderato of Piano Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82 (1940) shading and moulding the theme through the more thoughtful passages, always showing his innate musicianship as he gently develops the music. As the music climbs through Prokofiev’s dissonances, Donohoe just hints at the more powerful opening bars. Prokofiev’s insistent rhythms are subtly evoked slowly building through some formidable moments, this pianist finding a terrific clarity of texture, building a superb tension in the coda.

The way this pianist phrases the opening staccato chords of the Allegretto is impressive, finding subtle power before building a terrific rhythmic drive that is pure Prokofiev. He is quite superb bringing a lovely tone and finding a real forward flow before the opening phrases return, leading to a subdued coda.

There is a restrained strength to the Tempo di valzer lentissimo, building in power through some fine passages. Donohoe’s phrasing and clarity of line is wonderful. Centrally he brings a wonderfully fleet and fluent section that leads to impressively powerful chords before some very fine rhythmic changes lead to the quiet coda.

There are some superb fast and furious passages in the opening of the Vivace over which Donohoe reveals a longer line. This pianist’s touch and fluency are superb with a fine clarity in the fastest of passages. He controls the tempo and dynamics superbly, allowing hints of the opening motif of the sonata to appear in the later, thoughtful section before hurtling forward to a spectacularly virtuosic coda.
Donohoe brings a great lucidity to the sprawling opening bars of the Allegro inquieto - Poco meno – Andantino Piano Sonata No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 83 (1942) underlaid with a rollicking rhythmic pounding motif, bringing a sense of underlying uncertainly. As the music moves through quieter passages there is a sense of impending trauma before finding a nervous energy to move quickly forward. Donohoe brings a terrific weight, superbly judged rubato and so many little subtleties, finding a little more serenity before driving rhythmically to the coda.

Again it is Donohoe’s attention to phrasing and the longer line that allows the Andante caloroso - Poco più animato - Più largamente - Un poco agitato to develop with a flow and strength. He moves the music through some subtly shaded passages, finding moments of impressive power and strength before arriving at some impressively powerful moments. As the music falls away there is a quite wonderful moment of restrained hush but still with a sense of uncertainty.

The Precipitato is fast and finely controlled with subtle phrasing and dynamics, finding every little inflection as the music insistently drives forward through some thundering bars to a tremendous, volatile, insistent coda.

The opening of the Andante dolce Allegro of Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat major, Op. 84 (1944) brings a calm and breadth, conjuring up some very fine details over the flowing melody. A variety of moods are subtly developed by Donohoe who finds a sense of impending drama before speeding into the following Allegro moderato through some formidably fluent passages, all the while finding a longer line with the main theme. There are passages of great strength as the music develops to peaks of tremendous power. As the music falls away in Andante dolce Donohoe reveals a tolling motif that creates the feeling of some great tragedy. He finds a calmer flow to ruminate on the main theme before hurtling forward to a coda that finds a little quietude.  

The shorter second movement Andante sognando seems to bring a false calm with Donohoe subtly building the simple /theme, hinting at something more sinister. It is this fine pianist’s insight into these subtleties that is impressive here. He develops the music through some quite wonderful moments with a lightness of touch to a gentle coda.

He brings a light touch to the opening fast and delicate Vivace before adding strength as the music develops. His subtle rubato and tremendous fluency in the ebullient rippling phrases is wonderful. He creates a tension through the restrained staccato phrases that follow, rising to passages of terrific power and precision whilst retaining subtle elements. Eventually he finds a plateau of gentler calm in the Andantino underneath which the storm boils quietly before moving through gentle, slower passages of wonderfully poetic breadth. The music hurtles forward with the arrival of the Vivace, come prima, quicksilver and fleeting in mood, to some very fine rolling, fluent phrases as we are led to a quite stunning coda, full of bravura and exceptional virtuosity.

These masterly performances by Peter Donohoe are a formidable achievement bringing many insights and subtleties as well as power, authority and impressive musicianship.
The recording is very immediate and there are excellent booklet notes by Robert Matthew-Walker that set these sonatas in their context. 

This is an unbeatable disc. 

The first two volumes of Peter Donohoe’s Prokofiev sonata cycle are available from Somm Recordings on SOMMCD 249 (Piano Sonatas 1-5) and SOMMCD 256 (Piano Sonatas 9 & 10, Sonatinas and Cello Sonata).

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