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Peter Donohoe
Naxos Artist and Founder of the British Piano Concerto Foundation Discusses Birthdays, Beginnings, and British Composers

Peter Donohoe has soloed with many of the world’s great orchestras and conductors and played most of the world’s best-loved piano concertos during his long and rewarding career. However, even now there are new superlatives ahead for this Tchaikovsky winner, as he is developing a monumental project of British piano concertos for Naxos. His just-released recording of the Bliss Piano Concerto and Piano Sonata won an “Editor’s Choice” award from Gramophone. It was our pleasure to speak with him recently about a great number of topics including the new releases in the series, his unorthodox yet highly effective practice methods, and a mishap that nearly cost him his career.

Naxos: I know you’re celebrating your fiftieth birthday this year with a wonderful tour that takes you to some of the locales where your career took shape and catapulted to prominence. What are some of the stops that are most meaningful?

Donohoe: Of course, I would have to include Manchester because I was born there and gave almost all of my early concerts there. In addition, I wanted to return to London because of its prominence as the capital. London has been very good to me since the late seventies. Performances in Birmingham were scheduled because of my long association with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Simon Rattle, who was music director there for many years. I have greatly appreciated the support I have long found in the Channel Islands, Hong Kong, Sydney, Wellington (New Zealand), Los Angeles and Rotterdam, and definitely wanted to include them in the tour as well, because they have always supported what I do and keep on asking for more. I would be remiss if I did not include Russia, and in particular Moscow because of the competition and the unbelievable support people have always given me there. 

N: In a way, it sounds like a birthday present from you to your many fans.

D: I gave special recitals or performed particular concertos during this season to try to “give something back”, as the cliché goes. It has been incredibly rewarding, although you have not known embarrassment until an audience sings “Happy Birthday” and someone appears on stage with a candle-lit cake, which has happened to me four times this season thus far. 

N: What sort of repertoire have you been programming for these engagements?

D: I wanted to reflect some of my personal musical tastes, which was quite hard because I tend to like lots of different things. One of the most interesting things this season was to go back to the Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle because it’s so fundamental. That music was what started me off being a pianist in the first place, and it is essential to everything I do. I think it’s a great reminder of what piano music is all about. I’m performing the entire cycle twice this season. 

N: Given the list of plans on your docket, it’s quite impressive that you’re able to accomplish it all.

D: It has always been impressed on me that preparation should be very slow and ought to start as early as possible for anything you do. If you actually take that across a career, it means that you can more easily return to the music that you did in your twenties. You can take music off the “mental shelf” and rethink it. It doesn’t need relearning at that point, but it does need rethinking. 

N: That seems to relate to your comment that you personally don’t make an extra effort to put your own stamp on a piece of music. Rather than doing so, you simply perform your work and let your personality and experiences shine through on their own.

D: I suspect that I’m relying upon a large amount of experience subconsciously. If you have academic experience as I do [Writer’s note: Donohoe is an experienced composer, conductor, and conservatory teacher] and if you have a lot of experience in performing, a natural performance will represent you in an honest way instead of a self-conscious attempt to be “different” and to shed new light on something. We don’t need to do that because you’re shedding new light on it quite naturally. I believe rather strongly that if more than one artist plays the same piece of music as faithfully as possible that it will still always be different. 

N: That perspective puts the focus back on the music, which is refreshing.

D: It’s sometimes born from a lack of experience on an artist’s part. Of course, it’s more immediately noticeable when someone does something outrageous, and some people will go out and buy a CD just because it’s outrageous. In that case it would be more about the person playing than about the music. It may sound like a bit of a pose, but it’s true:  we’re all here to communicate what the composer wrote, not who we feel we are.

N:  Tell us more about your plans for the British Piano Concerto Foundation, and how things got started in the first place. It sounds like a significant undertaking. Is the foundation a fairly recent development?

D: Well, one of the reasons it is a big job is that I am very conscious of how I myself have often ignored the repertoire throughout my career. I’m not proud of that at all, but I don’t think I’ve been alone by any means. The British piano repertoire has been ignored by the musical community as a whole. Of course, it’s up to British pianists to popularize it. We as a nation do have a tendency to undermine our own culture. We certainly don’t support our composers very much, or our artists, although I must say I’m rather lucky, as is Simon Rattle. The majority of British artists do seem to feel that being British is a drawback. I think the US has this mindset as well . . . London and New York occupy similar positions; they have this gigantic blend of many cultures. The rest of the world is much more centred on their own culture, which is a very strong advantage. The downside is that you can forget about your own culture, which I think British instrumentalists in particular have tended to do with our music.

N: I can see how this led to your development of the foundation and your collaboration with Naxos. It sounds like it could be quite an extensive project.

D: Yes, there’s an enormous amount of music and that really is the point. A lot of it is very good, and some of it is fantastically good. I think the Bliss, for example, is a masterpiece. It’s very important that the British people don’t say “I think it’s a very good piece, for a British composer.” It doesn’t matter if it’s British or not . . . To be honest, I got inspired by the example of my Russian colleagues, because they are so in love with their own culture. I go to Russia a lot and I know how much their music genuinely means to them. It’s not just some kind of marketing ploy on their part; they really are quite proud of their art. When I compare a Russian soloist or conductor’s attitude to their own music with ours, the contrast is just embarrassing. When a Russian orchestra comes to Britain, they bring a Russian conductor and a Russian soloist without fail, and they play a Russian program. When a British orchestra goes to Russia, they play Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich and they take a soloist from Russia. . . I think it’s just an automatic reaction. What we really should be doing, at least some of the time, is taking an Elgar symphony or something like that and being proud of it. That’s how I feel about these concertos. We should be much more proud of them. What is encouraging to me is that as we record each of these discs, the pieces turn out to be even greater than I’d anticipated. The Bliss is a handful; very difficult, very long. I always thought it was a bit overblown but that was an impression based on not having heard it much. When I learned the work, I realized it wasn’t that way at all. If Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto is a masterpiece, which a lot of people think it is, then certainly, on every level, the Bliss is as well. It is in the romantic tradition without being reactionary. It’s a great piece and very rewarding, and I think the other discs will be similarly greater than I had ever expected. We have a list of 147 possible concertos…

N: The last I had heard, your list was only one hundred!

D: Well, it seems everywhere I go, people have suggestions of works to add. Some of them are very long, and some are quite short. Given that every one of them will cost us a fortune to record, it all depends on how the sponsorship comes together as to how many we record and when they are recorded. It’s terribly rewarding; it’s almost like a new lease on my musical life. There’s a lot of music in my repertoire, just because I thirst for more all the time [Writer’s note: Donohoe has a staggering eighty or so concertos and the like at his command, and just as many smaller-scale works]. I’ve played the Bartok, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven piano concertos endlessly. They’re absolutely wonderful, and that’s what brought me into the profession in the first place. It has been a major addition to add other works like these British concertos to my repertoire. They are not merely a musical curiosity corner, but instead are actually really great music. It makes me feel patriotic as well.

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This interview was conducted by Lorrell Holtz-Oxley in February 2004.

British Piano Concertos
Current releases in the acclaimed Naxos series:

RAWSTHORNE: Piano Concertos

BLISS: Piano Concerto

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