Concert review: Peter Donohoe at Sutton House

Peter Donohoe (image credit: Susie Ahlburg)

Tchaikovsky – Scherzo à la Russe, Op. 1 No. 1 Intermezzo in E flat minor, Op. 1 No. 2

Prokofiev – Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 1

Bartók – Rhapsody, Op. 1

Schumann – Abegg Variations, Op. 1

Berg – Sonata, Op. 1

Brahms – Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 1

Peter Donohoe, piano

Acclaimed British pianist Peter Donohoe opened the 2012-13 season of concerts hosted by Sutton House Music Society with a coruscating performance of music by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Bartók, Schumann, Berg and Brahms. Intriguingly entitled ‘Opus 1’, the programme featured early works by these great composers. As Peter said in his introduction, ‘Opus 1’ does not indicate the first ever piece written by the composer, but rather the first published work. These works are revealing in that they all contain fascinating pre-echoes of the composers’ later music, as well as highlighting the diversity, originality, and future maturity of these composers. The theme of the concert also enabled contrasting composers – Tchaikovsky and Berg, for example – to be programmed together. The first half of the concert was all Slavic composers, the second all Germanic.

“My first published piece was Scherzo à la russe, Op. 1″ so wrote Tchaikovsky in a letter to Nadezha von Meck, in 1879. Dedicated to the great pianist Nikolai Rubinstein (who famously rejected Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto as unplayable), the Scherzo a la russe and Impromptu in E-flat minor both show evidence of the composer’s later style, particularly that of the Nutcracker ballet score.

The Scherzo, based on a Ukrainian song which the composer heard from the gardeners at Kamenka, the home of his sister, begins innocently enough, with a naive melody, executed with a disarming simplicity by Donohoe, before moving into more chorale-like territory. The return to the opening theme is marked by cascades of octaves, all handled with ease. The Impromptu, meanwhile, marked ‘Allegro Furioso’, opens in a brash, excitable gallop, cast in unremitting quaver triplets, which gives way to an arresting, Chopinesque middle section played with great expression and beauty of tone.

Anyone familiar with Prokofiev’s later works, striking for their uncompromising, exciting and original harmonic landscapes, could be forgiven for mistaking the Sonata No. 1 for a work by Glazunov (one of Prokofiev’s professors). Although not part of the composer’s juvenilia, nor does it hint at his later style: rather, it is a showcase of the composer’s pianistic skills. It was not especially well-received, and was attacked by modernists for being “too orthodox”, perhaps because it shows the influence of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Busoni, and, above all, Anton Rubinstein (a favourite composer of Prokofiev’s mother). Scored in a single movement in rigid sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), it suggests an unwritten second and third movement, and has a sweeping lyricism with a strong emphasis on melody. It was played with flamboyance, with bright fortes and passages of great warmth, intensity and romance.

Bartok’s Rhapsody Opus 1 is full of premonitions of his later works – bass drones, open fifths, folk melodies and dances – yet has a strong affinity with Liszt in its thunderous virtuosic passages, sweeping scale and its masterful juxtaposition of the ethereal (in the opening Adagio) with the ominous in the boisterous and colourful second section. It was performed with great involvement and commitment, Donohoe highlighting perfectly the contrasting moods, colours and textures of the music, including some wittily executed glissandi and hushed pianissimo passages.

Schumann’s ‘Abegg Variations‘ felt like more familiar territory, with arabesques and fiorituras, and cantabile melodies redolent of Chopin. Despite its opus number, this work was neither Schumann’s first work, nor his first set of variations. With its letter-to-pitch derivations, the music prefigures ‘Carnaval’, and the later fugues on the name BACH. Each variation was executed with delicacy of touch, a rich mellifluous tone, and sparkling flourishes.

The Berg Sonata, like the Prokofiev, is cast in a single movement, with an exposition that includes two contrasting themes, a development section in which the themes are expanded, a recapitulation, in which the themes are restated, and a plaintive coda. It makes use of many tonal suspensions, which create some particularly haunting passages. The work is poignant and passionate, with a dramatic intensity, which Donohoe maintained throughout, playing with great commitment, at times as if for himself alone.

In contrast, the Brahms Piano Sonata opens with a thrilling opening gesture reminiscent of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, offset by a tender second theme, which prefigures the composer’s later writing for the piano. The slow movement is tender and songful, the Scherzo all Beethovenian swagger and rhythmic vitality, while the Finale reprises the ‘Hammerklavier’ idea in a dancing Rondo theme with contrasting episodes. In it, Donohoe demonstrated his ability to switch seamlessly between power and resolution, and warmth and lyricism. This was truly a thrilling finale to a fascinating, insightful and deeply involving concert.

Sutton House Music Society is based at Sutton House, a Tudor house run by the National Trust in Hackney, east London. Concerts are held in Wenlock Barn, an intimate recital space which allows audience to feel very connected and involved with the performer/s. The Music Society hosts a varied selection concerts, offering audiences the chance to hear top-flight artists as well as up-and-coming talents. For details of forthcoming concerts, please click here.

The next concert at Sutton House is on Sunday 18th November and is given by pianist Elena Riu. Elena will feature in a Meet the Artist interview ahead of her concert.

My Meet the Artist interview with Peter Donohoe

Sutton House Music Society website


  1. Beautifully written and very informative. The seemingly ubiquitous influence of Chopin again referred to in two places here. What a clever choice of programme too. Perhaps someone will do an Op. n programme (where n=their last published work)!

    • Many thanks, Ian. Hard to convey the excitement of being there last night; also the intense concentration of PD’s performance – he really goes to the heart of the music. A very committed performer.

      Opus ‘N’ an excellent idea!

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