How appropriate that the final celebrity recital in this year’s Birmingham International Piano Academy should have been given by Peter Donohoe, vice-president of the Conservatoire, doyen of Midlands music-making for three decades and, since his 1982 success in the Moscow Competition, a soloist of worldwide renown.
Donohoe began and ended with Liszt and Debussy – three of each presented as segues to give the illusion of complete works. As an example of logical programming it worked well, with the extracts from Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage even showing subtle links to the Debussy set.
Like Liszt, Debussy was inspired by his travels. He worked on Masques and L’Isle Joyeuse during a visit to Jersey in 1904, and also completed La Mer. So the inclusion of D’un Cahier d’Esquisses, which began life as a sketch for the better-known orchestral piece and shares many of its voluptuous harmonies and shimmering colours, made perfect sense.
Donohoe’s musical integrity and intelligence in even the most technically demanding works are his greatest strengths as a virtuoso performer. Time and again we were made aware of the sheer beauty of his playing – in the burnished tenor-like melodies of Liszt’s La Vallées d’Obermann, for example, and the subtlety of his weighted, layered accompaniments – while being constantly awed by the glitter and panache of his crystalline passage-work and double octaves as devastating in their effect as a machine gun on rapid-fire.
The core of this remarkable evening was actually Messiaen’s La Fauvette des Jardins, a powerful exploration of piano sonorities, veiled atmospherics, thunder and lightning and, of course, the ever-present atonal chatter of birds. As a centenary tribute to a 20th century original it was ear-teasing, nerve-jangling, and positively stupendous in its cumulative impact.