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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 1 (1909) [7:20]
Piano Sonata No. 2 in D minor, Op. 14 (1912) [17:15]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in A minor, Op. 28 (1907/1917) [7:21]
Piano Sonata No. 4 in C minor, Op. 29 (1917) [15:32]
Piano Sonata No. 5 in C major, Op. 38 (original version) (1923) [14:10]
Peter Donohoe (piano)
rec. 3-4 April 2012, Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton University, UK
SOMM SOMMCD249 [63:00]

It’s been some time since I’ve heard Peter Donohoe, who I first encountered on a fine disc of Tchaikovsky concertos with Rudolf Barshai and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (EMI Classics). This SOMM disc is the first in a projected series - the second will feature Piano Sonatas 6, 7 and the Cello Sonata with Raphael Wallfisch - and if his 1990 EMI recording of Nos. 6 to 8 is anything to go by this new series should be rather special. As the SOMM publicity points out, Boosey asked Donohoe to prepare definitive editions of these scores in 1985, so he knows them rather more intimately than most.
I’ve had the pleasure of hearing two riveting sets of Prokofiev sonatas recently, both of which capture the composer’s mercurial and complex nature; Alexandra Silocea’s traversal of Nos. 1-5 for Avie (see Byzantion’s very positive review) and Nos. 6-8, the so-called ‘War Sonatas’, by Denis Kozhukhin (Onyx). Both are well recorded too, which makes these scintillating scores sparkle all the more brightly and picks out their restless swirls and eddies. That said, the combination of Donohoe’s fine Steinway and a sympathetic acoustic is even more impressive, as his account of the little Op. 1 so readily demonstrates. He is much weightier than Silocea, although the latter does find a rather lovely vein of poetry to match the passion of the piece.
In the first movement of the second sonata Donohoe displays a wonderful control of rhythm and dynamics, and brings out the music’s bipolar qualities. His articulation in the pointilistic Scherzo is as good as it gets, and one has a delightful sense of the composer’s Puckish side. There’s a contrasting melancholy in the Andante that both Silocea and Donohoe mine most effectively, although the latter has a liquid technique that I find very appealing. In response to this painterly wash Silocea opts for more emphatic brushstrokes; both are most alluring though, as they are in the subversive wit of the concluding Vivace.
It’s the London bus syndrome; you wait ages for one and then two arrive at once. Recordings of these turbulent and taxing sonatas are few and far between, so one must rejoice at the almost simultaneous appearance of these superb issues. Both pianists are in commanding form, and at this stage I would hesitate to recommend one over the other. Donohoe has the better sound - rich and weighty in the climactic passages, subtly coloured in the quieter ones - but Silocea is almost his equal when it comes to illumination and insight.
Donohoe’s account of the single-movement third sonata is breathtaking in its agility and detail. Not only that, he gives us a rather touching glimpses of Prokofiev, the man behind that mask of suavity and sophistication; now pensive, now pounding, this is a taut and fiercely focused work that can’t fail to impress. Donohoe certainly tugs at the mask more insistently than Silocea, who concentrates rather more on the sheer heft and brilliance of the piece. For the first time - and remarkably so, given Silocea’s relative youth - Donohoe emerges as the clear winner.
The gap widens in the fourth sonata, where the dark sonorities of Donohoe’s imposing instrument are superbly rendered. As for the ambiguities of the Andante they have seldom emerged with such assurance and insight. I daresay this is where his forensic knowledge of the score really pays off - the finale is just as authoritatively played - and I found myself marvelling anew at the musical and emotional range of this extraordinary work. Make no mistake, Silocea doesn’t disappoint either; it’s just that her rhythms are less supple, and while she has the music at her fingertips her rival seems to have it etched on his consciousness.
Donohoe gives us the original Op. 38 version of the fifth sonata, Silocea the revised Op. 135. There’s not much in it, for they don’t differ that much, and as expected both pianists give it their all. Once again Donohoe’s unerring instincts for the shape and colour of these scores - their topography, if you will - is what sets him apart from all his rivals, not just Silocea. The internal dialogues and asides of the Allegro tranquillo - as well as the jewelled Tchaikovskian delicacy of the Andantino - are adroitly done, and the finale trips effortlessly off the page. That said, Silocea has a very good ear for Prokofiev’s peacock colours, which she displays to great effect in the Andantino.
Donohoe’s detailed, readable liner-notes make his disc even more desirable; factor in sonics that come close to those achieved by class-leaders Hyperion and you have a formidable package. Roll on Volume 2.
Top-notch Prokofiev, commandingly played; this is as good as it gets.
Dan Morgan