Interview: Peter Donohoe on playing Rachmaninov’s “phenomenally difficult” Fourth Piano Concerto

Peter Donohoe
Peter Donohoe
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Pianist Peter Donohoe is relishing the chance to work with a top Russian orchestra tackling their countryman’s hardest work

You’d think that that playing a Rachmaninov concerto would be a stroll in the park for a Russian orchestra, and for a British pianist who once picked up the silver medal at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Piano Competition. But according to the pianist in question, Peter Donohoe, when it comes to Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto, no-one should expect an easy ride.

Donohoe will be at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall this Sunday to perform what he considers to be “the most difficult concerto to play together in the whole repertoire” with the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Alan Buribayev. But despite the fearsomeness of the task, he relishes every opportunity to play this remarkable work, especially with Russian musicians, and especially to audiences who tend not to know this one as well as the ubiquitous second and third concertos.

It’s not a piece that matches most people’s expectations of Rachmaninov, argues Donohoe. “If folk were told this was by Prokofiev, they’d say this is wonderfully tuneful.” Sure enough, the 1926 concerto shows the composer to be wrestling with formal and textural complexities that seem to obscure the pungent lyrical qualities characterising the earlier works.

Donohoe reckons that such an impression can more often be influenced by bad performances. “A lot has to do with the busyness of the orchestra and the fact it’s also, like most Rachmaninov, phenomenally difficult to play. If you’re not careful, that tends to overshadow the lyricism, and the whole performance becomes something of a fireworks display when it shouldn’t be, and was never intended to be.”

Is this a symptom of what Rachmaninov himself referred to as the Fourth Concerto’s “unmentionable restlessness”? Donohoe’s view is that the composer simply didn’t make life easy for the pianist. “A feature of the orchestral writing is that it often features long sustained chords. Meantime the pianist is flying all over the place, so the result is very often that the orchestra is behind, or the pianist is in front. There are no other works in the repertoire more difficult than this in terms of getting the ensemble right, not even by Bartok, Stravinsky, Messiaen or Mozart.”

However, Sunday’s performance is unlikely to turn into such a frantic race between the St Petersburg players and the 64-year-old Manchester-born pianist, who first performed it with this orchestra and conductor in the early 1980s as part of a complete Rachmaninov cycle in both Moscow and what was then Leningrad.

“We actually started the series back then with No 4,” he recalls. “For the Russians it was a big shock, because they didn’t know it any better than the British do. It’s strange to think it was never played there during the height of the Soviet era, when the music Rachmaninov wrote after leaving Russia was frowned upon.”

Donohoe’s own reaction on first hearing it was a determination to learn it, and to this day he considers it to be the finest of the self-exiled composer’s concertos, riven by a sadness that expressed his longing to be back in Russia. “It is the most emotional experience I can think of on stage, next perhaps to playing Mozart’s C minor concerto. These are the two great tragic piano concertos of all time,” he reckons.

Those familiar with the Rachmaninov, and who raise a smile at what, in the second movement, appears to frivolously quote Three Blind Mice, should bear in mind that Rachmaninov had no knowledge of the children’s ditty.

It was a melody of his own making, central to a movement that Donohoe confesses had him “almost in tears” the first time he played it.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to breaking down as I was in this movement,” he says. “Emotionally, not technically,” he is quick to add. Not that anyone would have noticed. “Fortunately the second movement isn’t very difficult, and I had recovered by the third movement, which is horrendously difficult.”

In any case, technical issues have never been a problem for Donohoe, known as one of the swiftest sight readers in the business.

But how pianistically satisfying does he reckon Rachmaninov’s music really is?

“He was probably one of the greatest pianists that ever lived, and you can really feel that in the writing.

“That makes it so satisfying to play, so long as you’ve got big enough hands,” he cautions, referring to the composer’s famously monstrous stretch. “That does have an impact on the piano writing, and makes the rest of us feel rather small.”

The treat for Sunday’s Edinburgh audience, of course, is that they get to hear Donohoe in full flight with a Russian band, which will also perform Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture and Symphony No 6, the Pathétique.

“Most great Russian orchestras are absolutely stunning to play with,” he maintains. “The sound they make is impossible to emulate anywhere else. I love to play with an orchestra that plays like that whatever the repertoire.” But, he adds, they do have a habit of doing things their own way, which can make a soloist’s life frustrating.

In Rachmaninov’s case it depends very much on which concerto it is.

“If it’s the popular Second Concerto, which they play so much they’ll almost know it from memory, that can be a problem, because it’s almost impossible to do anything different with it. Insert a rallentando they’re not used to and it would be like trying to stop a tank.

“But late Rachmaninov is simply not part of their tradition, so in works like the Fourth Concerto, they are not so set in their ways and anything can happen. When we did the complete cycle in the 1980s, I would say without any doubt that the performances of the First and Fourth were the best, whereas the Second and Third were a bit like here we go again.”

Looks like Edinburgh’s picked the lucky number.

*Peter Donohoe and the St Petersburg Philharmonic are the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on Sunday, 4.30pm; tickets start from £12.50, 0131-228 1155 / www.usherhall.co.uk