Peter Donohoe: Music to lift the spirits 203 days after last performing with other people

Peter Donohoe plays the piano

'During September and October I'm at LSO St Luke's three times. I'm thinking of taking an apartment nearby actually.' We were thrilled to take the opportunity recently to sit down with Peter Donohoe and talk about his return to performing after lockdown, plus a Piano Concerto that lifts the spirits!


'The last concert I gave was a chamber concert in Moscow on 20 February. Immediately after the concert, I tore what's called the shoulder rotator cuff muscle, which coincided with the lockdown. So lockdown for me was a recovery period.

I think I've been incredibly lucky. I didn't play for some weeks, but when I started to, I began to play all kinds of pieces I'd never played before. So lockdown was an opportunity to learn new music, be with family, attend to my home more than I normally would, and to practise without jetlag. We are very lucky, we who've not yet been touched by it. It's very easy though to be positive if you've had a reasonable time yourself, and we've always got to remember the dreadful things that have happened to other people.'

'So many things about the concert [on 23 September] were significant for me – there were so many things I was reunited with …

… the Tippett Piano Concerto after 20 years of not playing it; playing with other people for the first time in 203 days; and the LSO. The TV programmes with Previn in the 1960s were absolutely seminal for me, and I don't think the series has ever been matched since. The LSO was the orchestra I always looked up to when I was young. To come back to play the Tippett and to work again with Sir Simon (who's known me since I was 17) was a wonderful experience! 

The Tippett Piano Concerto is one of my very favourite 20th century concertos. I actually knew Tippett a little towards the end of his life. As a presence, he was someone who spread incredible good will and happiness, joy and optimism. That's just what we need at the moment, isn't it? It's an incredibly uplifting and rather appropriate piece for this time – it lifts the spirits! The first three minutes is the part that inspired me to play it in the first place. It's utterly glorious, I don't know that there's anything like it. 

All three pieces in the programme are very optimistic. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is famously a victory over conflict, and there was no one better than Beethoven to write music like that. The Dvořák Slavonic Dances that start the programme are again, incredibly uplifting.

There's nothing tragic about these three pieces – they're so much what we need at the moment, and it's wonderful to have made something so suitable for what has happened. When you consider the difficulties so many music organisations are going through, it's incredible that this concert happened at all. 

During September and October I'm at LSO St Luke's three times.

LSO St Luke's is a great venue for all kinds of reasons and all kinds of things. The day after the concert with the LSO was the lecture with Marina Frolova-Walker, Professor of Musicology at Cambridge University, on Russian piano music. Along with a recital for BBC Radio 3 in the same space, I’m thinking of taking an apartment nearby actually!

The BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert on Friday 2 October is part of a themed series called 'Brahms and Beyond', which of course means the influence of Brahms on the 20th century. Brahms is one of the most gloriously romantic and lyrical composers who lived – so many people's favourite composer and certainly one of mine. The most influence he had was on the Germanic strand of writing, the most famous part of which, for pianists, is the Second Viennese School; Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

One of the most significant works in the programme is the Sonata Op 1 by Berg. It’s no conincidence that it's been chosen. The Brahms Sonata is also Opus 1, and I love the idea that we’re playing two pieces by two composers at the beginning of their published output. The Berg Sonata is a single movement that could have been intended as a much longer piece. He took it to his teacher, Mr Schoenberg, who assured him it was abosutely perfect as it was and shouldn’t get extended. It’s a unique example of great 20th century piano music.

I think in many people’s minds, Brahms and the Second Viennese School are completely different worlds. But I love the way that you can see a line from one to the other. I’ve always thought these lines from one period or composer to another are fascinating. In the end, it means that the whole history of music is part of one great big statement. To be able to pick this out and demonstrate it in one concert is really exciting for me.

I wonder if this is what it feels like every time you have a sabbatical and return to work.

It's rather nerve wracking in an exhilarating way. If you do three concerts a week, as I normally would, there are lots of things about it that you take for granted – it’s just part of your life and you get used to it. Perhaps it's a good thing that you are reminded that it's a very special lifestyle and the most incredible experience to be a musician. Some musicians forget that, and maybe I did to some degree. This is a very good way of being reminded. 

The whole ethos of an orchestral rehearsal – the sight and sound of musicians arriving at a venue, removing their instruments, tuning up – is so familiar and yet so far away as well. It's so fantastic to see it happening again. I can only hope and pray that it continues.'


Dvořák, Tippett & Beethoven

Dvořák Slavonic Dances Op 46
Tippett Piano Concerto
Beethoven Symphony No 5

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Peter Donohoe piano
London Symphony Orchestra

Read the digital programme notes

Listen on BBC Radio 3

Listen for free for 30 days after broadcast (on 25 September)

Parts of this programme are available to watch on Takt1 on 15 October and 29 October.


Thursday 15 October: Dvořák & Beethoven

Dvořák Slavonic Dances Op 46, Nos 1–4
Beethoven Symphony No 5

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
London Symphony Orchestra

Watch on Takt1

For pricing and ticket information, please visit takt1.com/live


Thursday 29 October: Dvořák & Tippett

Dvořák Slavonic Dances Op 46, Nos 5–8
Tippett Piano Concerto

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Peter Donohoe piano
London Symphony Orchestra

Watch on Takt1

For pricing and ticket information, please visit takt1.com/live

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