Peter Donohoe, notes from a key player

Peter Donohoe. Picture: Contributed
Peter Donohoe. Picture: Contributed
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VIRTUOSO pianist Peter Donohoe is relishing his time with the BBC SSO, and the opportunity to reconnect with the concertos of James MacMillan

It’s a quarter of a century since pianist Peter Donohoe first encountered the music of James MacMillan. That was to premiere the Scots composer’s first piano concerto, The Berserking, at the 1990 Musica Nova Festival in Glasgow with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Donohoe remembers it well for two main reasons: the “absolute immediacy” of the music, and the fact the composer’s first child was born on the very day of the performance. “It was a kind of poetic coincidence”, says the Manchester-born pianist.

Twenty-five years on, Donohoe is effectively catching up with McMillan’s family of piano concertos, which now – like the composer’s real-life family – amounts to three offspring. Having performed the most recently-written – the plainly titled Piano Concerto No 3 – last November with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Donohoe is back this week with the same band, under Carlos Miguel Prieto, to revisit The Berserking, before returning again in April to complete this SSO mini-series with the Second Concerto, under American conductor Andrew Litton.

Donohoe’s performance of the Third Concerto in November was electrifying, causing the audience to explode into spontaneous whoops, cheers and applause. It offered a whole new visceral dimension to a work that, in an earlier Scottish performance by the RSNO and its original dedicatee, French pianist Jean-Ives Thibaudet, bore a more languid and reflective persona.

Personally, I found Donohoe’s approach more in keeping with the spiritual frenzy that underpins the work, though he professes he was never influenced or swayed by either Thibaudet or MacMillan.

“I approach everything in the same way, which is to try and rid myself of any preconceptions,” Donohoe explains. “That’s not to say I’m not immersed in other ways in the life stories and situations composers found themselves in, but I try to eliminate that from the way I play their music. Particularly with a really great composer, and I think James genuinely is one, it’s really obvious to me what they’re trying to express through the music without having to discuss it too much. Too much discussion may well spoil the way you play it”.

So what did Donohoe discover beneath the notes on MacMillan’s pages? “Of all the contemporary concertos I’ve done in recent years, that one stands out as a real shining star. I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “It’s so exhilarating. It reminded me of Messiaen – not the style of the music particularly, or the extramusical content, but the personality that shines through the music.”

The First Concerto, which Donohoe revisits this week, is a quite different kettle of fish. Based on the idea of the 9th century Viking Berserkers – Norse warriors who fuelled themselves with hallucinogenic mushrooms before going into battle literally berserk – and reinforced by MacMillan witnessing his favourite football team Celtic demonstrate similar, sadly futile, traits against Partizan Belgrade, The Berserking belongs to that same hi-octane period that spawned his ground-breaking tone poem The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, a work that established MacMillan as a major international voice.

Donohoe reckons it’s less of a piano concerto, per se, than Nos 2 and 3, and more a gigantic orchestral piece with a piano part. “My impression as soloist was very much of being on the periphery than in the spotlight,” he recalls. “That’s not in any way to say it’s a lesser piece. It is incredibly powerful; all three concertos are. What is so unusual about James’ style is the way it has an immediacy for the audience. They don’t have to listen to it 20 times to get it. You can’t say that about every great composer.”

Finally, in April, Donohoe will play the Second Concerto, written originally as a dance score for New York City Ballet, and first performed there in 2004. Scored for piano and strings, and inspired by Edwin Muir’s poem, ‘Scotland 1941’, its mood and material – the constituent movements are ‘Cumnock Fair’, ‘Shambards’ and ‘Shamnation’ – are rooted firmly in Scottish soil.

“This is a much more traditional Scottish folky dance sort of thing, and for that reason, if you don’t know that traditional style, it wouldn’t mean as much,” Donohoe says. “I’m not Scottish, but I obviously have a lot of familiarity with that style in the way most of us do, but again I’ve got to make sure that I respond to what the composer writes down, and not be too influenced by fore-knowledge.”

Indeed, Donohoe’s instinctive response to the solo writing is that the pianist is actually given the task of drawing away from string writing that is “very obviously related to folk tradition.”

That is reflective, he says, of a universal dimension in MacMillan’s music that gives it international currency beyond its Scottish hallmarks, and which became very clear to Donohoe as he prepared these concertos.

“It’s been quite a revelatory year in that respect,” he says. “I’ve just been playing Scriabin, and that music is as recent for me as James’s. I kind of ignored it in my early professional life. Two nights ago I played the complete sonatas at one concert and it struck me that there is something very similar between the two composers, some kind of coloristic inspiration that you also find in Messiaen. I’m getting that same feeling again with the Second Piano Concerto.”

Even at such an early stage in the series as this, Donohoe’s ease with, and understanding of, this difficult and challenging music is palpable. It helps, he says, to have the backing of the SSO. “It’s such a fantastic orchestra these days. I played a lot with them years ago, and it was rather fun.

“There was a huge hiatus of 15 years when I didn’t. I don’t know what caused that, but it’s great being back. I was incredibly impressed by the way they put the Third Concerto together, not just technically, but the spirit of it. It’s just fantastic.”

My guess is the feeling’s mutual.

• Peter Donohoe and the BBC SSO perform James MacMillan’s Piano Concerto No 1 on 5 March, and the Piano Concerto No 2 on 2 April, both at the City Halls, Glasgow,