MUSICIAN: Peter Donohoe Photo: SUSSIE AHLBURG
MUSICIAN: Peter Donohoe Photo: SUSSIE AHLBURG

Commanding technique on show

By Christina Mcewan Time of article published Feb 2, 2016

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Christina McEwan

PETER DONOHOE is a man who knows his scores, but just as much he knows his mind. And doesn’t mind speaking out. He will be in Cape Town to play the 1st Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto in the opening concert of the Cape Town Philharmonic’s 10th International Summer Music Festival on Thursday. The CPO will plays under the direction of Bernhard Gueller.

This is Donohoe’s third visit to South Africa – he was here on a nationwide tour in 1985 when it was disapproved of in the UK.

“I did it because I do not approve of being used politically by anyone. It’s why I perform in Israel and Russia and China. If they invite me, I will go, no matter what I think of the regime. I know enough about international politics to know that what we see and hear about is often over-simplified and every single example of visiting a country without a full approval rating has been a revelation to me.

“I believe that keeping lines open through the arts and other connections does far more good than pressure through sanctions, which often harm the very people they are meant to protect. I am very happy to have seen for myself at least a section of the reality of South Africa in the 1980s, and am able to form my own opinions about such things on the basis of personal experience.”

Donohoe was here again in the mid 1990s, when he played Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with Bernhard Gueller, a partnership he is looking forward to repeating: “I loved working with Gueller very much and am only sorry it has taken 20 years to repeat the experience.”

On the subject of competitions for rising musicians, he says: “Awarding a first prize when it is not justified undermines the integrity of the competition. I feel that a first prize should not be awarded if it is not warranted. It doesn’t do the young musicians any good if they are not ready. Winning competitions can be bad for careers – the ability of the winners to stand up to the total life change that includes the response of the media, the agents and the record companies.

“This is by definition short-termist. Of course winning, when a first prize winneris ready for what is coming can be the best possible assistance with the career, as long as they are ready,” he says.

“I won a Silver Medal in the 1982 International Tchaikovsky Competition and I was not fully prepared for what happened to me, so if I had won gold I may have become jaded and given up”.

He notes that it is very important to see that there is such a big difference between admiring a young pianist and expecting him to have a great career ahead of him on the one hand, and awarding the prize that could possibly ruin them on the other.

“It’s a kind of pastoral care thing that we experienced older musicians need to extend to the younger generation. I guess that’s what the jury did for me in 1982 by awarding me joint silver. I am glad they did it although at the time I viewed it differently, and politics were also involved.”

“It was the time of the Cold War and east-west relationships were dangerous. I was also the audience favourite, but since juries look for other qualities the audience favourite is often not the gold winner. “

Donohoe will leave Cape Town to play a recital with a Turkish theme at the International Mozart Festival in Johannesburg, before returning to the UK to pick up on what is his greatest relaxation at the moment.

“I have spent the whole of January practicing Mozart – my next two years’ project – at the end of which I will record it. I needed something of a rest from public performance having played in Russia, South America, America and Germany in the autumn, with performances in the UK of course.

“So it has been a good relaxing break – all his solo piano music and the concertos which are part of my life. Mozart is possibly the greatest composer, one who fulfils my needs at my level of (hopefully) maturity.”

“It’s actually fascinating to see Mozart from the retrospect of having played so many works from later in music history. My last recording projects were all the major piano solos works of Shostakovich and Scriabin so this is a very big contrast.

“It was Messiaen who told me to wait until I was 60 before exposing myself and the world to Mozart's sonatas.

“I was a student of Messiaen many years ago and it still a surprise that a contemporary composer Messiaen should have had such a high regard and infinite respect and understanding of Mozart – they are so different.

“I followed his advice, partly because I had become associated with the 20th century and Russian romantic repertoire for the obvious marketing opportunities and I always had to work hard to persuade people to not to go for those concerti.

“I also took Messiaen’s advice and benefited from his wisdom on many different topics.”

As one of the foremost pianists of our time, Donohoe is in demand everywhere for his musicianship, stylistic versatility and commanding technique, and performs with every worthwhile orchestra almost everywhere.

He holds seven honorary doctorates from British universities and was awarded a CBE for services to classical music in the 2010 New Year’s Honours List.

The concert on Thursday also includes the Roman Carnival Overture by Berlioz and the Dvorak Symphony no 6.

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