On record: Peter Donohoe – Stravinsky: Music for Piano Solo and with orchestra (Somm Recordings)

Stravinsky Music for Piano Solo and with orchestra Peter Donohoe (piano), Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra / David Atherton (Somm Recordings)

3 Movements from Petrushka (1921)
4 Études Op.7 (1908)
Piano Sonata in F sharp minor (1903-4)
Piano Sonata (1924)
Serenade in A major (1925)
Piano-Rag-Music (1919)
Tango (1940)
Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1923-4, rev.1950)
Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1958-9)
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (1929/1949)

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Stravinsky’s output for piano is, perhaps not surprisingly, overshadowed by the blockbuster ballets. Yet, as recent collections from Steven Osborne and Jean Efflam-Bavouzet have shown, there is plenty to wonder at and enjoy here. Peter Donohoe takes up the mantle and goes one step further, providing an extra disc of the composer’s music for solo piano.

What’s the music like?

Extremely varied, and often spiky, exploring the piano’s capabilities as a rhythm instrument as well as a melodic one. Some of the solo works have a relatively dry musical palette, but all have interest and the earlier ones work especially well here.

The Four Études are virtuoso pieces with their roots in the language of Romantic Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and early Scriabin. The two Piano Sonatas are a great illustration of the difference between early and middle period Stravinsky. The first, an expansive half-hour piece in F sharp minor draws inspiration from the composer’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov as well as the Grand Sonata of Tchaikovsky. The composer had no time for it, declaring it ‘fortunately lost’ – unaware it was under lock and key in the National Library of Russia.

The Piano Sonata of 1924, a third of its length, inhabits a different world, ‘neo-classical’ Stravinsky compressing his music into forms derived from the 18th century. The perky Serenade and the short Piano-Rag-Music and Tango make a nice, sprightly contrast to the bigger works, as do the death-defying Three Movements from Petrushka. Always a spectacular experience, these sections from the ballet faithfully reproduce the colour of the orchestra and are a technical summit that pianists cannot resist conquering.

The works for piano with orchestra are fascinating. The Concerto for Piano and Wind has a stern face and is on occasion a bit caustic – the composer contrasting ‘sounds struck and blown’ in driving rhythms. In its slow music however there is a more intimate, even vulnerable heart. Movements, a set of five postcards dating from Stravinsky’s move away from conventional tonality, remain full of interest in their syncopations, tonal movement and snapshots of humour. Finally the three-movement Capriccio is a refreshing burst of energy in its outer movements, the last movement especially turning into a riot.

Does it all work?

Yes. Peter Donohoe is an expert guide to this music, his pedigree in Russian piano music almost unrivalled among his contemporaries. Those recordings of Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich serve him in good stead to present a consistent and illuminating portrait of Stravinsky in his very different phases.

He is a model of clarity in the trickier contours of the more modern works, making the most of the composer’s rhythmic impetus and bringing in humour when the chance allows. In the slow movement of the Concerto he sets the mood with a calming simplicity, enjoying heartfelt dialogue with the chorales of the Hong Kong winds.

In the more overtly Romantic music he is a model of virtuoso performance. The flurry of notes in the fourth Etude are superbly delivered, while in the grand Sonata in F sharp minor Donohoe makes a compelling case for the work despite its massive structure. The shorter pieces work well too, the spiky side to Stravinsky coming to the surface.

David Atherton, also a seasoned interpreter of the composer, secures excellent playing from the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra wind in the Concerto especially, their block sounds beautifully rendered. Those sonorities are also beneficial to the Capriccio and Movements, which are suitably punchy. These are slightly older recordings, from the mid to late 1990s, but hold up extremely well.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The musical contents may not be as immediately appealing as the ballets, maybe, yet this is a collection rewarding closer inspection. Spending time with this music gives a greater insight into Stravinsky’s development as a composer, and even if you love the more Romantic side of Russian piano music the solo works bring their own rewards.

London Sinfonietta 50th Anniversary Concert

Tamara Stefanovich (piano), Simon Haram (saxophone), London Sinfonietta , London Sinfonietta Academy Alumni / David Atherton, George Benjamin, Vladimir Jurowski

Birtwistle The Message (2007)
Stravinsky Octet (1923)
Ligeti Chamber Concerto (1970)
Deborah Pritchard River Above (2018) (World premiere)
Samantha Fernando Formations (2018) (World premiere)
Abrahamsen Left, alone for piano (left hand) & orchestra (2015) (London premiere)
Various Encore! (14 Variations on a Hornpipe by Purcell) (2018) (World premiere)

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 24 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here (available until 22 February 2018)

With a bold slogan Unfinished Business – We’re 50, the London Sinfonietta illustrated at their birthday concert exactly why the ensemble remains such a vital cog in the musical life of the capital and the UK.

Their relentless drive for the new, the original, and the game-changing, is coupled with a level of musicianship that remains at the very highest in all they do. This concert reminded us of those things, while a couple of tactful presentations drew attention to the inspirations behind the music, as well as highlighting those who were sadly not able to experience the half-centenary birthday.

To the music – and a short fanfare to begin in the form of The Message, written for the Sinfonietta’s 40th birthday by one of the composers to help shape the ensemble, Sir Harrison Birtwistle (from 4:43 on the broadcast link above). It began proceedings with appropriate ceremony, brilliantly played and controlled by the spotlit trio of clarinettist Mark van der Wiel, trumpeter Alistair Mackie and percussionist David Hockings.

Stravinsky’s Octet followed (from 7:43-23:19), conducted by one of the ensemble’s founders, Sir David Atherton. This was a colourful account, enjoying the outdoorsy and often playful writing for the less-than-usual combination of flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone.

The short introduction ushered in the perky main theme of the first movement (from 9:12), but it was in the second movement (12:01) where the Sinfonietta really excelled, the flurries of notes brilliantly delivered by clarinets and bassoons. The third movement (12:10) enjoyed Stravinsky’s pointed interactions between the instruments, bassoons again dictating the rhythmic impetus.

The first half ended with Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto, written in 1970 and continuing to dazzle with its innovations in tone and sonority (from 27:35-47:05). Atherton worked with the composer on the score, so this ‘first hand’ performance had real authority. It was a performance of exceptional detail, the atmospheric effects hushing the audience almost in to a stage of hypnosis in the quieter moments.

By complete contrast the harsher interventions had the power to make the listener jump, meaning a return to the state of hypnosis was needed for some nerves to be kept intact! The players were terrifically alive to the changes in mood and colour, and in those loud moments (e.g. 38:54) Clive Williamson’s piano added an edge of visceral power.

If the first half was a summation of the London Sinfonietta’s expertise with established 20th century repertoire, the second reaffirmed their commitment to the very new.

Deborah Pritchard’s commission River Above, a world premiere, gave us a marked change in sonority as we turned to the solo saxophone of Simon Haram. This was a brilliantly played piece, exploring the timbre of the instrument to good effect through long-breathed phrases (1:28:00-1:36:49 on the broadcast).

This was followed by a second world premiere, Samantha Fernando’s Formations (1:40:41-1:49:17) for an ensemble of 15 players. This was much more immediate in its impact, beginning with imposing block chords before moving to a section with sharp, barbed wire edges to the texture. Throughout there were fascinating and colourful sonorities and strong tonal associations, before the piece began to move forward with greater purpose towards the end, which if anything came too soon.

Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen has enjoyed a close association with the ensemble since the late 1960s, so the inclusion – and London premiere – of Left, alone, a Concerto for piano (left hand) and orchestra (1:58:30-2:19:00), conducted by George Benjamin, was wholly appropriate. The much larger orchestra and piano required a considerable break while the heroic front of house team expanded the, but the wait was worth it – for this was an apt choice.

Starting with a real show of strength, soloist Tamara Stefanovich had terrific energy, the piano outlining a bold rhythmic profile in the lower register but then moving higher, accompanied by the large ensemble. As Abrahamsen says in the interesting interview with Sara Mohr-Pietsch on the radio broadcast, the wiry tones of the large ensemble are essential to the overall sound, preferable to the fuller symphony orchestra approach. This was clear as the piece progressed, becoming less of a battle between left hand and orchestra; more an integration of the two different sound worlds, so that when twinned with the bassoons at the end the sound palette burbled like a hot spring.

Finally there was a collaborative commission, a collage of Variations on a Hornpipe by Henry Purcell (from 2:24:31-2:42:46 on the broadcast link), conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. The variations were written by 14 composers with Sinfonietta connections, and were followed by an altered statement of the hornpipe itself written by 10 more. All contributions were woven together under the direction of John Woolrich, who composed the beginning and end.

The best advice here is to listen to the introduction on the radio, then to guess who might be the composer of each fragment as the piece proceeds! A stately, ceremonial air surrounded the piece at its start but gradually the variations moved it further from the source. Perhaps inevitably the fragmented approach led to a disjointed whole at times, with a short attention span – due to the number of composers involved rather than Woolrich’s sterling work in getting the music together.

It was however a suitable showcase for the Sinfonietta as an ensemble, proving beyond doubt once again that their virtuosity knows no bounds, and ended with a flourish – as though to say, “Here’s to another 50 years, at the very least”. And so say all of us!

A 50th anniversary tribute will follow on these pages soon.

Further listening

You can listen to an album of Hans Abrahamsen’s music made by the London Sinfonietta in 1997 on Spotify: