In Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, as in his late string quartets, the sublime, ferocious and the lyrical sit cheek-by-jowl. These works can astonish, disturb and console us.
Peter Donohoe made no attempt to smooth away the sharp edges of their musical and expressive contrasts. Beauty in itself was not Donohoe’s aim – no more than it was Beethoven’s – but to give us the plain unvarnished truth.
Sitting a few feet from the pianist in a small recital hall, without the physical and aesthetic distance a concert platform provides, brought every musical detail into sharp relief. The syncopated variations in the last movement of Op. 111 sounded amazing as Beethoven leapt forward 80 years and across the Atlantic to bring the sound of New Orleans ragtime piano to 19th century Vienna.
Beethoven’s obsessive use of trills, such as in the final movement of Op.109, had greater impact as they rang in one’s ears at such close proximity. Donohoe’s Beethoven is a world away from the airbrushed and carefully coiffed figure who appears on disc covers. This cycle was a warts-and-all portrait of a musical genius with ink-stained fingers; volatile, inspired and capable, in the Arietta of Op.111 of making angels weep.
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