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.

Under the surface – Parry: English Lyrics


Composer: Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)

Nationality: English

What did he write? One composition springs to mind when you think of Parry – for the hymn Jerusalem is heard at many a national occasion. Beyond the Last Night of the Proms his choral anthems are also revered, with I Was Glad and Blest Pair of Sirens two of the most popular. Beyond that there are five symphonies and a number of orchestral and chamber works.

What are the works on this new recording? Although his choral works are often heard, Parry’s songs are a relatively rare breed. Promisingly, this is billed as volume one of the English Lyrics, a massive collection in twelve volumes that the composer wrote between around 1885 and 1920. The 31 songs on this new recording include 26 from the English Lyrics but finish with five settings of Shakespeare.

What is the music like? The disc takes in many moods, and although it flits around the different volumes of English Lyrics it is very well structured in this collection. Parry’s setting of Shelley’s Good Night is an early high point, Susan Gritton slightly husky in her description of nocturnal, and this is followed by the refrain ‘Soft shall be his pillow’ in Sir Walter Scott’s Where shall the lover rest, Gritton controlling the vibrato on her top ‘G’ with impressive precision.

There are some very popular texts in these Parry settings, and Roderick Williams handles O Mistress Mine and Take, O take those lips away with unfussy poise. On the other hand there are tiny trifles such as Julia, where the baritone introduces a touch of mischief. Meanwhile Gilchrist is especially effective in the anonymous text Weep you no more, a lovely piece of consolation. Andrew West is a sensitive picture painter alongside the three singers, introducing When icicles hang by the wall with chilly detachment and accompanying Williams in On a time the amorous Silvy with an instinctive sense of when to push on and when to hang back.

What’s the verdict? Somm have put together an enterprising release that unites some of the best English singers around, with pianist Andrew West joined by Susan Gritton (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor) and Roderick Williams (baritone). It is a nice and effective contrast to move between the male and female voices, and it helps that the words are sung so clearly.

Give this a try if you like… Brahms, Schumann or Vaughan Williams songs


You can listen to Good night, sung by Susan Gritton, here

Under the surface – Grieg Piano Music played by John McCabe


Composer: Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Nationality: Norwegian

What did he write? Two of Grieg’s works are among the most popular in classical music. These are the early Piano Concerto and the music for Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt, containing such treasures as Morning and In The Hall of the Mountain King.

What are the works on this new recording? In this new issue of remastered recordings originally made for RCA in 1978, the recently deceased pianist John McCabe plays two late collections of the composer’s music for solo piano – the Slåtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances) and a collection of short pieces published as Stimmungen (Moods) in 1905.

What is the music like? Grieg writes delightfully for the piano, and these pieces show a complete mastery of the three-minute format. In the case of the Slåtter (Norwegian Peasant Dances) he effectively turns transcriber, arranging original folk material for piano but in such a way that it sounds like it was originally written for the instrument.

It is tuneful music, and in both collections the composer’s gift for melodic setting is clear. Often his melodies are played out over drones in the left hand of the piano, giving the music a rustic feel.

McCabe finds the exquisite tension in the first piece, Resignation, while by contrast the second, Scherzo-Impromptu, is an amicable dance, and Tune from the Fairy Hill, the fourth of the Slåtter, is a dance for the outdoors. In the Hommage à Chopin, a technically demanding Studie from the Stimmungen, McCabe is wholly equal to the task.

Grieg’s music may be charming but if often demonstrates a chilling undercurrent, which can clearly be heard in The Mountaineer’s Song and Night Ride from Stimmungen. McCabe communicates this with a real frisson.

What’s the verdict? This music feels intensely personal, and although it is the work of a composer in his sixties there is still a resolutely youthful side to it, and McCabe brings out the balance between the two.

Give this a try if you like… Sibelius piano music, Chopin or Mendelssohn

Spotify Playlist

Firstly you can listen to Resignation, the first piece of the Slåtter, here

A playlist of lesser-known Grieg is available on Spotify below, including the mature Violin Sonata no.3, the two Elegiac Melodies, Bergliot for baritone and orchestra and finally the Lyric Suite, comprising orchestrations of some of his piano pieces. The final March blows away the cobwebs!