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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Sonatas - Volume 1
Piano Sonata No. 6 in D major, Dürnitz, K284 (1775) [26:26]
Fantasia No. 3 in D minor, K397 (1782) [5:20]
Piano Sonata No. 17 in B flat, K570 (1789) [18:09]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in F major, K280 (1775) [18:54]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
rec. 2018, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, UK
SOMM SOMMCD0191 [69:05]

Peter Donohoe begins his cycle of Mozart’s eighteen piano sonatas with Piano Sonata No. 6, called the Dürnitz after Baron Thaddäus von Dürnitz for whom it was written. It’s the most brilliant of Mozart’s first six sonatas. The first movement exposition from Donohoe is full of energy and showmanship, but the main impression is one of bonhomie as Donohoe makes the interspersing of soft phrases a recurrent means of tempering the loud ones. And the second theme from Donohoe (tr.1, 0:38) is a balmily lyrical contrast, a wish to savour the beauty of the moment which largely manages to survive his left hand’s peremptory calls to action. The hands come to a kind of truce in a lolloping descending phrase presented by both in octaves (1:15), played here with a touch of bullish abandon, a look forward to Beethoven? The development (2:58) has much of the character of a fantasia the way thematic elements are introduced and soon abandoned for others. The gradual compression of these elements is striking. The first ‘theme’ is in 2-bar phrases, as is the second (3:12), but the third (3:22) is in one-bar phrases, the fourth (3:29) in half-bar phrases and the fifth (3:30), by now a theme fragment, takes just quarter-bar units to stagger into the recapitulation. This is all done with great zest by Donohoe. I compared the 2012 live recording by Christian Blackshaw (Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0076/2). His account is daintier with even tone yet crisp articulation which brings more of an 18th century atmosphere and I strongly felt every element was part of an overall unity. Unlike Donohoe he doesn’t, in Sonatas 6 and 2, make second half repeats.

The second movement is, unusually, a rondo in the dance style of a polonaise, a movement which honours ornateness but also the freedom of movement possible even from what is a quite stately dance. Significant in this is the closing arching phrase (tr.2, 0:36) of the ornamented repeat of the rondo theme which becomes more airborne in the second part (1:01) of the first episode. Donohoe brings all this out well and gives us a glittering, animated dance. As the rondo theme grows increasingly florid, that simple arching phrase makes for a refreshing coda. Timing the movement at 3:58, Donohoe I’d say offers a fair Andante. At 4:49 Blackshaw is closer to Adagietto, luxuriating in the dance, but I prefer his gracefulness in which the high notes in the first episode are moments of radiance rather than, with Donohoe (0:51), vehemence. I also like Blackshaw’s more marked shading of dynamic contrasts: to give one example, in the repeat of the second appearance of the rondo theme the loud rising semiquaver flourishes that end softly (1:46 in Donohoe). By the final statement of the rondo theme with Blackshaw I’m conscious of a greater density of beauty where with Donohoe I’m admiring a forward sweep of complexity and intricacy.
The second movement is all about variety - of dynamic, elaboration and reflection on a theme. The finale offers the stricter and more extended variety of Theme and Variations. Donohoe plays the theme forthrightly: he’s interested in going places. In the second strain there’s more play with dynamic contrast, higher tessitura and the biggest contrast of silence at mid-point, a feature also found in variations 1, 3 and 7. Variation 1 (tr.3, 0:59) presents the theme in a bubblingly faster, jolly manner just by casting the right-hand melody in triplets. Donohoe brings to it a sense of scintillant abandon, yet the balance in the second strain of the right-hand triplets and left-hand straight quavers is notably deft. Variation 2 (1:52) is all jocularity, the triplets having moved to the left hand and the right capping them with skittish tumbling. In Variation 3 (2:48) the balance to be appreciated is that between right-hand semiquaver and left-hand quaver groups. Donohoe plays it almost recklessly fast, and why not if you can, so the uninhibited character glimpsed in variation 1 resurfaces. In Variation 4 (3:46) the theme starts with a bottom A in the bass before its treble repeat 3 octaves higher, starting the melody off with the necessary punch to withstand a maelstrom of semiquaver left-hand accompaniment and finally right-hand too. Donohoe’s playing here is breathtaking.

Variation 5 (4:45) is intended to be a genteel contrast with both hands mainly on the right- hand side of the piano, but Donohoe keeps the projection urgent. Variation 6 (5:43) looks forward to Beethoven in its bold, stomping crotchets exchanged between the hands. Variation 7 (6:38) is in the minor, Mozart’s first. You could say this D minor is more pastel shaded than gloom ridden, with a curvaceous, ambling opening to the theme and making filigree use of trills and dynamic contrasts. Donohoe clarifies its distinctiveness, but I feel it might to advantage be less insistent, perhaps even a little coy. Variation 8 (7:42) is chipper and works well the interplay between boisterous masculine bass and bright-eyed feminine treble. In the latter I feel Donohoe might be a touch suaver, especially in the shimmy in octaves at the end of the first half of the second strain. Talking of octaves, Variation 9 (8:40) boasts a canon, with the treble in octaves echoing the bass in octaves at the beginning of the second part of the first strain and at the same point in the second strain the bass in octaves echoing the treble in inversion, that is as the treble rises a fifth the bass falls the same amount. Donohoe brings to this whole variation a feel of gleeful abandon. Variation 10 (9:30) is more evidently tricksy, with a tremolo effect of continual semiquavers against, but also sometimes part of, the melodic line with the hands exchanging these roles both between and within strains. Donohoe’s stimulating treatment honours its brilliance.

Variation 11 (10:24), marked Adagio cantabile, is the most expansive and memorable because it’s like a soulful, operatic aria. I feel it too as a piece of independently evolving thought, aided by Donohoe playing its 3:39 span with a free-flowing serenity. This guards against the danger of it becoming sentimental but then do his periodic hemidemisemiquaver runs anticipate Chopin too readily? On the other hand, when the writing turns to quavers (12:00), barely heard since the opening, I was moved by Donohoe’s poise and the pathos of the moment. Variation 12 (14:05) doubles as finale. Mozart is able to dispel the distinctive quality of the previous variation by starting this one like a Minuet with a firmly etched, squarer theme closer to the manner of the work’s opening. But it’s a jaunty, cheeky Minuet and before it risks becoming twee it launches into the earlier bravura manner of semiquaver figures galore alongside bold melodic projection contrasted with unexpectedly graceful downtime, which is to say this is a kind of digest of the whole piece. Donohoe brings to it a breakneck vividness and prankishness.

Blackshaw times the Theme and Variations at 18:40 to Donohoe’s 15:03. In presenting the theme Blackshaw’s manner is quieter, more inwardly than outwardly joyous, his phrasing lovely yet articulation and dynamic contrasts very clear. He manages to abstain from Donohoe’s forward impetus, yet without seeming to linger indulgently. Blackshaw presents the elaboration of Variation 1 in a beamingly equable manner, dispensing with Donohoe’s athleticism. Blackshaw’s Variation 2 has a warm robustness in the left hand while the double appoggiaturas in both hands are still sufficiently cheeky. In comparison Donohoe’s faster tempo creates a scouring waspishness and the lovely counterbalancing resolution at the end of the first half of the second strain revealed by Blackshaw is swept through by Donohoe (2:24). But a faster tempo sometimes brings dividends: Blackshaw’s Variation 3, while fleet and deft, lacks the allure of Donohoe’s flibbertigibbet quality. Blackshaw’s Variation 4 is sturdily rumbustious but a mite too polite, where Donohoe gives us irrepressible mayhem in invigorating clarity of phrasing. But while, in Variation 5, for Donohoe a glistening crispness is everything, Blackshaw caresses the phrases to more soothing effect. But in Variation 6 Donohoe gets more élan from the stomping crotchets. Yet in Variation 7, the one in the minor, Donohoe’s pace blunts character: he gets less out of the forte descent in the right hand (7:11) and piano ascent in the left (7:15) than Blackshaw’s spacious and reflective approach of subtly and largely masked disquiet. Curiously, however, in Variation 8 Donohoe’s crystalline brightness across the dynamic range sounds more classical than Blackshaw’s contrast between daintily soft and heartily loud. In Variation 9 Blackshaw contrasts better the gradually emboldening then drawing away of the melodic essence, so the variation becomes a study in the growth and release of tension. Donohoe sacrifices this in favour of an overall geniality. In Variation 10 Donohoe’s greater spring is beneficial. In the Adagio cantabile Variation 11 Blackshaw’s 4:57 span incorporates the occasional hemidemisemiquavers as part of the overall beauty rather than a distraction from it. In the normal aria progress Blackshaw seems to gaze at and admire every note as if a succession of pearls, yet while the effect is very beautiful the sense of an expressive argument is somewhat obscured and, for such an argument, I prefer Donohoe. In the final variation Blackshaw makes a cheery start but the more vigorous material again lacks the ebullience of Donohoe.

I like Donohoe’s leavening in this disc of sonatas by including Mozart’s Fantasia No. 3. Donohoe makes its Andante D minor opening flowing, with a certain tension yet also improvisatory feel and in this showing the influence of Bach to whose music Mozart had recently been introduced. It leads to an Adagio (tr. 4, 0:36) whose clear-sighted poignancy takes me via Donohoe straight to Chopin, again played quite fast which brings out its element of posing, also felt in the more dramatic aspect of the right hand passages in running semiquavers shot through with rests (1:25), like a fretfully palpitating heart, followed by tantrums speeding over the entire range of the piano. Yet Donohoe makes the return of the Adagio feel genuinely downcast despite all the veneer. The problem of this work is whether the closing D major Allegretto can provide a suitable resolution. This is classical where what Donohoe has given us before is romantic. He sounds comfortable with it through, as I hear it, an element of flippancy, again through pace and particularly evident in the wolf-whistling demisemiquavers in the third strain (from 4:24).

Mozart’s manuscript ends unresolved in low register at 5:03. Donohoe then plays the 10 bars added probably by August Eberhard Müller and printed in the Mozart Neue Ausgabe to make a trim conclusion. I prefer Mitsuko Uchida’s solution in her 1983 recording (Philips 412123-2, now available as a Presto CD) which is to frame the work by returning to the Andante introduction at this point, albeit adding, perhaps to claim her completion, four higher tessitura versions of the opening arpeggio (6:32 to 6:53 in her recording) before the closing final highest tessitura phrase. Staying with Uchida, I prefer her more expansive approach overall, taking 5:49 before her version of the ending where Donohoe takes 5:03. She brings a more mysterious, brooding quality to the opening and I appreciate her quietly instilled tension between the rising left hand and falling right one. Her Adagio is a song of lament, the loud cries heartfelt but without theatricality and soft contrasts imploring, the semiquaver palpitations incidental to the lament’s eloquence, the Allegretto played as a chastened resolution mindful of earlier suffering.

Next from Donohoe comes the late Piano Sonata No. 17. Its opening theme begins with a seven-note rising and falling motif of tranquil authority before it becomes trippingly vivacious. Donohoe presents this with a magisterial calm and elegant poise in turn. Then two arresting pairs of chords alert us to a second theme (tr.5, 0:30) whose chief feature is a seven-note motif of luxuriantly bluesy chromatic descents. Donohoe brings more urgency to this which is appropriate to a second part of more prolific semiquavers than in the first theme and, unlike that, marked forte. The third theme (0:53) starts with the movement’s opening motif in the left hand over which an insistent and evolving melody develops in the right, for good measure filching the chromatic descents from the second theme. This is, in the main, straightforward two-part texture yet the interplay between the hands is handled with masterly assurance and Donohoe makes it glitter. The development features the second and third themes in unfamiliar harmonic landscapes, Donohoe making the second theme’s descending motifs increasingly dramatic and the third theme’s insistent motif growingly declamatory before we’re welcomed home by the first theme and realize it’s the second part of the third theme that is its more attractive, fulfilling aspect.

For this sonata I compared Jean Müller, also in volume 1 of a cycle of Mozart piano sonatas, this one recorded in 2016-17 (Hänssler Classic HC18068). Timing the movement at 5:48 to Donohoe’s 6:13, neither here making the second half repeat, Müller’s slightly faster Allegro makes for a more beaming but less calm opening motif while in the second part of the first theme I feel extra vivacity is bought at the cost of loss of charm. But the semiquaver clusters whose abundance increases through the exposition are more dazzling in Müller’s hands, a faster second theme is a warmer, jollier one and the faster third theme’s insistent right hand is relieved of its slightly hectoring manner. The question is how much emphasis on virtuosity do you like? Müller brilliantly demonstrates it.

The slow movement is presented by Donohoe as an Adagio of stately reflection with a nicely nuanced lean on the penultimate note of the first strain, the whole an expressive aria despite its fully displayed decoration. If you find the episode in C minor (tr.6, 2:39) familiar that’s because Mozart is re-using it from the slow movement of his Piano Concerto 24 of 1786. Donohoe brings to it momentum and tension, the clarity of balance between the hands being a key ingredient in that tension. The second episode (5:34) is warmer, with a more emotive second strain expressively phrased by Donohoe, while his poised treatment of the coda allows you to appreciate how well Mozart places its every note.

Müller goes for a faster Adagio, timing the movement at 7:17 to Donohoe’s 8:43. Its opening still has a calm dignity, showing it doesn’t have to be as weighty as Donohoe’s but Müller’s overall line is less singing. His staccato contrasts, such as the second rise of 4 quavers (0:17 in Donohoe) are for me a touch too emphatic and thereby seem a little brash, but I like the way Müller plays the repeat of the first part of the second strain slightly quieter. At his faster tempo the first episode becomes more forlorn, more withdrawn and inward, but Müller does make this sing. Paradoxically Donohoe’s greater momentum at a slower tempo gives the more optimistic feel of a trial to be overcome, which it is demonstrably through his soft ending in the transition to the recapitulation, where Muller is emphatic. Müller’s second episode is less warm than Donohoe’s, its second strain less emotive: in sum for me it’s less involved, the most notable feature being some attractive additional ornamentation in the second strain. In the opening part of the coda Müller becomes more reflective to advantage, but then picks up tempo in the second part.

The finale is a perky jeu d’esprit of a rondo to whose theme Donohoe brings a disarmingly unassuming cheerfulness, enjoying lightness of touch. To the first episode (tr. 7, 0:34) he brings a weightier bounce of conviviality which suits its showmanship in playing which passes the foot-tapping test (i.e. makes you want to). In the second episode (1:39) the gleeful emphasis is on the triumphing skill of counterpoint. Only after this comes the second and final appearance of the rondo theme and its amused lightness is a welcome relief. The bounce returns for the coda with an outrageously extravagant burst of ingenuity and ostentation in two-part writing before a close of satisfyingly quiet acknowledgement of skill by Donohoe. I like that he chooses not to play the closing 3 notes forte though so marked. Although Müller’s timing for the movement is 3:30 against Donohoe’s 3:12, because his articulation of the rondo theme is firmer his Allegretto sounds to me a touch impetuous which misses out on humour, though the theme itself skips along nattily. His first episode is also less festive and therefore characterful than Donohoe’s. Müller is foot-tappingly livelier in the second episode, especially the left hand in its second strain and the return of the rondo theme progresses that liveliness with an attractively greater spirit than its first appearance. Müller’s emphasis in this movement is towards a bolder manner which looks forward to Beethoven. Donohoe here is happy to keep Mozart in the 18th century, but is he too fast for Allegretto? The gaiety of his performance wins me over.

This disc ends with more raw, basic Mozart in his Piano Sonata No. 2. In Donohoe’s performance the driving force of the opening movement is a combative meeting between two strong personalities, easiest to appreciate in the second theme (tr.8, 0:37). The male’s opening 3 crotchets rising from the bass is countered by the female’s tripping falling semiquavers, unsurprisingly she has the more to say and takes over the close of the exposition in triumph. When that’s repeated it’s easier for you to observe that the man’s formal, largely crotchet first theme is immediately countered by a ‘just a minute’ lady interjection, rebuffed by the man, but the lady in the right hand then has a long sequence of quavers in triplets which become airier as the left-hand man’s interjections are ignored. Now when you hear the extension of the second theme (2:05), you’ll observe the man in the left hand is on the back foot, trying to interject and finally leading with 4-semiquaver-plus-quaver octave ascents (from 2:16), but the lady remains dominant. In the development the dialogue becomes more forceful with both parties converging on shouted chords and, in the recapitulation, there are added fractious cries. The issue is resolved by a truce in which both parties can have a triumphant manner, the lady now only peaking at F rather than C at the end of the exposition. Of course, you don’t have to see the movement in such personal terms: you can appreciate it as interplay between left and right hand, but Donohoe brings such robustness to it that it’s fun to do so. Blackshaw, again recorded live in 2012 (Wigmore Hall Live WHLive0061/2) more lightly articulates the first theme and left-hand generally, so his opening is jolly rather than authoritarian and we’re carried along on a wave of right-hand shimmer. Your joyous focus is on the deft interplay of the hands, the development’s startling features piquant but incidental colourings. His approach is easier to live with than Donohoe’s and brings more delight.

The first movement, however played, offers no preparation for the total change of mood as F major gives way to an F minor Adagio. Donohoe brings to it a solemn, tragic cast, taut and undisguised, not allowing the occasional softer moments to disturb this mood. The second theme (tr. 9, 0:34), in A flat major, does recall happier times but its second part is full of pathos and the remaining attempts to cheer seem just damage limitation. The siciliano rhythm heard in the opening notes, in its recurrence, especially in the development, confirms a relentless melancholy. In the recapitulation the potential balm of the rising contours of the second theme is dashed by it sinking down in F minor. Throughout Donohoe’s focus is concentrated and shaping assured. Blackshaw, timing at 6:34 to Donohoe’s 7:41, looks to have the faster account but he doesn’t repeat the second half of the movement. If he had done, his timing would be 9:30. His more spacious approach evokes more stillness, yet not of calm but anguish. His playing is less public than Donohoe’s, more inward and thereby more desolately sorrowing and heartrending, his dynamic contrasts a little narrower in range but more marked in their sensitivity.

Again, a mood change, for a Presto finale in which Donohoe is able to relish frivolity. If we’re returning to the same couple as in the first movement the lady is now totally in control, with the gentleman reduced to curmudgeonly bass grunts. There’s a delicious frothiness and flexibility in the right hand while, for good measure, Donohoe adds a bubbling eingang (mini cadenza) to lead into the recapitulation. Blackshaw, timing at 3:21 to Donohoe’s 4:26, looks to have the faster account but as earlier he doesn’t repeat the second half of the movement. If he had done, his timing would be 4:36. He’s attractively limpid, but a shade less effervescent than Donohoe and his more polite version of the bass grunts in the exposition shortchanges the fun.

Impetus is a key element in these accounts by Donohoe. He gives Mozart’s piano sonatas a fresh, impactful voice, quite an achievement, but this is sometimes a stormy Mozart, looking very much forward to the 19th century.
Michael Greenhalgh

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