In concert – Peter Donohoe, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski: Foulds ‘Dynamic Triptych’ & Shostakovich Symphony no.11

Peter Donohoe (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski (above)

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London
Wednesday 11 December 2019

Foulds Dynamic Triptych (1929)
Shostakovich Symphony no.11 in G minor Op.103 The Year 1905 (1957)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here, though you may wish to skip the interval of Shostakovich’s String Quartet no.8 for continuity.

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Isle of Noises series has attracted – for me at least – some unfair criticism in recent days of the works included in its remit. Granted, the choices are all English, but the composers look beyond these shores with a willingness seemingly out of kilter with the current political climate.

John Foulds is a case in point; a composer who spent the final five years of his life in India before a tragic early death to cholera. Not only did he live in India but he actively explored its musical systems, looking to see how he could incorporate his discoveries and influences into the framework of classical music.

The Dynamic Triptych is a striking example of successful integration. Completed in 1929, its musical language is well beyond its years. In the first movement Foulds becomes obsessed with a modal scale, repeating it over and over rather like Scriabin would do with towers of chords based on intervals of a fourth. The task of playing the modal scales often fell in this performance to the muscular piano part, played with great authority by Peter Donohoe (above). The pianist has spent a great deal of time with this work, recording it with Sakari Oramo and the CBSO in 2006. He led a highly spirited performance, yet despite his brilliant passagework and percussive interventions in the fast music the soul of the work lay in the slow movement.

Here the strings’ quarter tones, beautifully played, brought added mystery to the picture when dressed with evocative percussion, adding to music already in the grip of a poignant sense of loss. Piano and orchestra regrouped for a finale that galloped ahead, Foulds letting the music off the leash to explore more far-flung tonal areas, before a silvery waltz theme was introduced to complement the quickstep. Both fused for a bold and dramatic finale, capping a well-received performance. This was forward looking music of English origin, and not in a 12-tone style either! The LPO should be praised for its inclusion and Vladimir Jurowski, who conducted with characteristic sensitivity, will hopefully explore more of Foulds’ colourful scores in the future.

The colours vanished dramatically after the interval for the opening pages of Shostakovich’s Symphony no.11. This performance took on added poignancy with a dedication from Jurowski to Mariss Jansons, sadly departed the previous weekend at the age of 76. Jansons was guest conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1992 to 1997, and he grew up in St Petersburg, on close personal terms with Shostakovich. The Eleventh Symphony, depicting the slaughter of protestors in the city as part of the Russian Revolution in January 1905, could not have been closer to home.

What a performance it was. For an hour we barely moved as Shostakovich’s first-hand account of the action took hold in vivid, cinematic detail. The icy Palace Square of the city could not have been colder in Jurowski’s hands, with ominous timpani rolls signalling tragedy all too early on. When it came, in the second movement, the massacre was delivered by music of uncompromising and stunning power, the proud brass chorale ultimately shut down by deafening percussion before the door slammed shut. Suddenly the square was silent, save for the strings’ icy tendrils which extended once again towards the audience, noticeably holding its collective breath.

The London Philharmonic were absolutely superb. With 22 cellos and basses playing as one, digging in to the ice as though their lives depended on it, the performance was on sure foundations, above which we had special woodwind contributions, with cor anglais (Sue Bohling) and bass clarinet (Paul Richards) just two of several exceptional solos. The percussionists, a vital cog in the Shostakovich machine, judged their contributions ideally too, with sharp snare drum retorts complemented by rolling bass drum and gong.

Still the tension remained, through an elegiac slow movement where the violas’ melody could not have been more poignantly played by David Quiggle and his section. The dedication to Jansons felt most intense here, and the players were given due acknowledgement by Jurowski in their well-deserved curtain call. Yet despite the deeply personal aspect of the performance there were even sharper parallels with the political climate of today, reminding listeners of the protests in Hong Kong and the forthcoming UK election, not to mention the disinformation, code and discrimination that permeate today’s society at every turn.

This account lived and breathed all of those dreadful things, and as the performance reached its shattering climax with tolling bells, Shostakovich was communicating with ever more piercing clarity. It may not be his most accomplished symphony but the Eleventh is one of his most descriptive and emotive. As Jurowski held the score aloft afterwards it was clear he felt the same – and I for one left reeling at the impact of a memorable performance.

Further listening

This Spotify playlist gives recordings of the Eleventh Symphony from Mariss Jansons himself, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Peter Donohoe with the CBSO under Sakari Oramo in the John Foulds Dynamic Triptych:

You can read a tribute to Mariss Jansons on the London Philharmonic Orchestra website

Enescu Festival 2019 – Peter Donohoe, Muntenia Philharmonic Orchestra Daniel Jinga: Bentoiu, Lipatti & Enescu Symphony no.5

Andrei Lazăr (tenor), Peter Donohoe (piano), Acoustic Chorus (women’s voices), Muntenia Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniel Jinga (above)

Trade Unions’ Cultural Centre, Târgoviște, Romania
Friday 13 September

Bentoiu Suite ‘Ardelenească’, Op.6 (1955)
Lipatti Concertino ‘en style classique’ Op.3 (1936)
Enescu (compl. Bentoiu) Symphony no.5 in D major (1941)

Review by Richard Whitehouse
Photo credit (Peter Donohoe) Sussie Ahlburg

A welcome facet of the Enescu Festival, the Concerts in Other Cities schedule could easily be overlooked owing to distances involved in this sizable country. That said, a day in Târgoviște is eminently feasible. Just 50 miles and a 90-minute train journey from Bucharest, it features several historic buildings (notably the Chindia Tower) that can be visited prior to an evening concert – on this occasion, by the Muntenia Philharmonic Orchestra with principal conductor Daniel Jinga. A quick online perusal suggests the majority of their concerts are of a popular or ‘crossover’ nature, making their playing in this programme of unfamiliar and technically demanding compositions the more impressive – not least in as unsparing an acoustic as the main hall of Trade Unions’ Cultural Centre (a scaled-down version of London’s Barbican).

It may be a relatively early work, but the Transylvanian Suite finds Pascal Bentoiu utilizing folk elements within the context of an already distinctive idiom. Each of its four movements draws on music from a region of Transylvania, and Jinga secured a lively but always flexible response from his musicians for a piece in the lineage of Bartók’s Dance Suite or Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsodies. Surely the most significant post-war Romanian symphonist, Bentoiu had from the start an innate command of the orchestra as was scintillatingly in evidence here.

Peter Donohoe (above) then took the stage for Dinu Lipatti’s Concertino in the Classical Style. Most of Lipatti’s larger-scale pieces are from the period before his playing career took precedence, with this Concertino typical in its synthesis of folk melodies with a neo-classical idiom closer to Hindemith or Ravel than Stravinsky. Modest in their dimensions these may be, Donohoe rendered its four movements with deft insouciance and poise, as heard to advantage against the modest instrumentation which abounds in contrapuntal ingenuity and harmonic finesse.

Impressed with the response of the players as of a near-capacity audience, Donohoe returned for substantial encores of Mozart’s Sonata in A minor then Ravel’s Alborada del grazioso – both of which feature in Lipatti’s select discography and given here with engaging vitality.

The second half brought a rare hearing for Enescu’s Fifth Symphony. Substantially drafted over summer 1941 but left in abeyance with its first movement largely orchestrated, it was Bentoiu who undertook a full realization during 1995-6 of what he considered the composer’s requiem for himself.

The first movement centres upon that endlessly evolving melody which was made possible by Enescu’s conception of heterophonic texture – the music afforded its momentum via acutely differentiated timbral layers that coalesce into an unlikely but audible sonata design. Its successor recalls the folk-inflected poignancy of the Suite Villageoise, now with a fatalistic undertow that comes to the fore in the ensuing Vivace which brings the only rapid music of the whole work. Essentially an adjunct to the finale, this culminates with the finale’s gaunt opening theme – the latter movement then unfolding as a funeral march whose valediction is transcended in the setting of Mihai Eminescu’s poem Mai am un singur dor -emerging not as a contrives apotheosis but an organic culmination of all that has gone before.

A combination of the dry ambience with acoustic enhancement meant that Andrei Lazăr was balanced too forwardly against the orchestra, yet he sang with great eloquence (not least his unaffected parlando in the closing lines) – the women’s voices of the Acoustic Chorus adding an ethereal halo to those closing stages. Jinga instilled real forward motion into the opening movement, then brought out the wistfulness and anguish of its two successors. Whether here or in the radiant aura of the finale, his instinctive feel for this piece could hardly be gainsaid.

Make no mistake, this was an enterprising programme in which the Muntenia players was on occasion hard-pressed but rose to its challenges with commitment and enthusiasm. Hopefully orchestra and conductor will secure themselves a concert in Bucharest at the 2021 edition of the Enescu Festival, yet anyone visiting the capital two years hence should certainly consider spending a day in Târgoviște – a compact and appealing city, while hardly an inappropriate place for a first live encounter with the last as well as most elusive of Enescu’s symphonies.

Further listening

You can listen to Pascal Bentoiu’s completion of Enescu’s Symphony no.5 in a CPO recording released in 2014. Marius Vlad is the tenor soloist, with the NDR Chor and Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken-Kaiserslautern conducted by Marius Vlad:

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)

Stravinsky
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.