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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition [33.01]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1939)
Miroirs [27.43]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Cantéyodjayâ [12.22]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
rec. 2018, Cedars Hall, Wells Cathedral School, UK

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the most innovative of 19th Century piano works.  In this latest recording, Peter Donohoe couples it with works by Ravel and Messiaen which both draw on Mussorgsky’s innovations.

There are many fine performances of Mussorgsky’s Pictures but I am afraid this is not one of them.  Donohoe studied with Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod in Paris, so one might expect him to have an excellent grasp of this composer’s music, but he approaches the score in a very clean, technically literal way, and many of the portraits are under-characterised.  There is no sense of threat or menace in “Gnomus” and some of the disturbing chords in the piece are very dull and matter-of fact.  The portraits of Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle are technically proficient but lack imagination. “Bydlo” is overly bombastic without conveying the effort involved in dragging the lumbering cart while the “Market Place at Limoges” is a little too hectic in places.  Donohoe’s performance is not completely without merit. He skilfully evokes the portrait of “The Old Castle”, the troubadour’s soulful song is tinged with melancholy and Donohoe demonstrates his virtuoso firepower in “Baba Yaga”, showing us the malice and ferocity of the witch, while “Tuileries” is played with disarming charm and lightness of touch.  However, one comes away with the overall feeling that Donohoe is going through the motions with this performance and it does not show him at his best.

Ravel wrote Miroirs in 1905 and it was performed the following year by the great Catalan pianist, Ricardo Viñes.  Each of the five movements in the suite are dedicated to members of Les Apaches. Ravel presents a series of images in the suite akin to the series of paintings in Mussorgsky’s Pictures.  Like Mussorgsky he approaches the piano from the point of view of a virtuoso orchestrator while achieving a pianism that is entirely idiomatic. Donohoe uses a wide range of colours in his performance and he handles the virtuoso demands with ease.  Once again, however, I found his performance to be inconsistent. He is perhaps at his best in “Oiseaux tristes” where he captures the bell like sonorities and birdsong brilliantly. He conjures rich luminous textures from his Steinway in “Une barque sur l’océan” and the climax of the piece is heady and rhapsodic.  The technically demanding repeated notes in “Alborado del gracioso” are played with brisk efficiency but the performance is a little flat and lacks flair, particularly in the climactic coda. “Noctuelles” captures the flitting of the moths in Léon-Paul Fargue’s propose poem although these are literal insects and they do not flutter like fairies in a magical garden.

Messiaen’s Cantéyodjayâ was composed in 1948 for Yvonne Loriod.  It is constructed as a mosaic-like collage in which a rhythmic refrain is juxtaposed with contrasting ideas, many of which are re-workings from Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony.  Donohoe’s performance of this work was the highlight of the disc for me. He appears to relish the virtuoso demands of the piece and produces striking, highly original sonorities.  The climactic coda is a virtuoso tour de force.

While this disc contains some fine playing, neither the Mussorgsky nor the Ravel shows Peter Donohoe at his best.   

Robert Beattie

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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