Opus One: Piano Concert with Peter Donohoe

HARRY DADSWELL goes to a piano concert with a daring programme. Did the risk pay off?

Bartok Brahms opus one Peter Donohoe pianist Prokofiev Schumann sonata Tchaikovsky West Road Concert Hall

West Road Concert Hall, Wednesday 10 October

The ‘opus one’ of a composer has always been the object of fascination, with many seeking within it some premonition of the composer’s future creative path. However, the daring idea of programming an entire concert with the first published pieces of six composers is not without risks. With many famous composers writing a fair number of dud works in their early years, there is a danger of hearing compositions which might better be consigned to the dustbin of musical history.

This concert, which featured the renowned pianist Peter Donohoe, was not without some pieces sent before their time into this breathing world ‘scarce half made up’. In particular the opening two pieces by Tchaikovsky, albeit expertly performed, fell into this category. The Scherzo à la Russe, despite its short length, was exhausting to listen to, a brash and clunking work with its cascades of octaves in the left hand.

The Prokofiev sonata that followed unleashed a similar bout of tempestuous hammering, written in an overblown Romanticism which the composer would abandon in his far more impressive later piano sonatas.

Things swiftly improved, and the audience was treated to Bartok’s epic Rhapsody, a highly challenging work with the greatest range in dynamics and mood. Donohoe conveyed the introspective nature of its slow passages, the boisterousness of its Hungarian folk dance sections and even provoked a chuckle from the audience when executing a series of comical glissandi.

Robert Schumann’s Abegg Variations were a breath of fresh air, its gossamer melodic strands played with an effortlessly light touch. We glimpsed the virtuoso technique which won Donohoe the USSR’s coveted International Tchaikovsky Prize back in 1982.

Next came Alban Berg’s haunting sonata in B minor, arguably the most accomplished composition of the concert. With its drawn-out development passages and its experimental tonality, this single-movement work has the dramatic intensity we would normally expect in a symphony. Donohoe kept up momentum, although a critically misjudged chord weakened the final climax. There was perhaps more room to linger in the quieter passages, although the sombre coda was executed with great delicacy.

The concert ended with Brahms’ Sonata in C. This was Donohoe at his best, switching effortlessly from the meaty opening, reminiscent of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, to the tenderness of the second theme. Within a few bars the man who was sat in front of me had entered a state of ecstasy, complete with rolling head and closed eyes. It is perhaps instructive that it was Schumann who encouraged the young Brahms to publish the Sonata, having been struck by its power when it was played to him. So at least this concert ended with a work worthy of Donohoe’s talents, and, in the eyes of a more experienced composer, a work worthy of being performed on its own merits.

We apologise that this was originally published with a 2 star rating, rather than 4 star, as was intended.