Just before Peter Donohoe played the last of Alexander Scriabin’s ten piano sonatas at the Guildhall’s Milton Court on Sunday, the autograph score of the piece was beamed on to the wall behind him. It was just a glimpse —- but enough to show us that Scriabin had the most beautiful musical calligraphy of any composer since Bach.
On the face of it, that’s surprising. You would expect the Cantor of St Thomas’s to inscribe neatly — and indeed baroque musicians often play Bach straight from his own manuscripts, preening as they do so. But Scriabin is often regarded as a messy composer, in thrall to the mystical fads of pre-revolutionary Russia. So you might envisage a scrawl covered in ink blots and frenzied crossings-out.
It’s true that Scriabin’s mysticism hasn’t aged well; nor have his laborious attempts to link every tone in the chromatic scale to a specific colour and emotion. But this doesn’t make his piano music messy. If the chords sound clotted and the musical argument incoherent, blame the pianist.
The sonatas, written between 1892 and 1913, move rapidly from conventional late romanticism to dissonant experiments touched with hysteria. Yet even the spookiest effects are the product of rigorous method rather than madness.
To quote the Scriabin scholar Simon Nicholls, the composer’s ‘voice-leading and harmony were impeccably logical at all stages in his development’. Hence the graceful pen strokes of his finished manuscripts, works of arts in their own right. This ‘slender exactitude’, says Nicholls, ‘makes it clear to the interpreter that a similar clarity, precision and grace is demanded in his or her own performance — something extremely difficult to achieve.’
I wasn’t expecting Donohoe to pull it off. He became a bit of a celebrity in 1982, when he won the silver medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition — a triumph missing from the detailed CV provided for the Scriabin. Perhaps he feels that it overshadows his career. There were a couple of big-boned romantic concertos on EMI before he moved to smaller labels; with his bear-like frame, goatee beard and Manchester accent I thought he was in danger of coming across as a John Ogdon tribute act.
More fool me. Perhaps if I’d listened to Donohoe’s much-praised recordings of British composers on Naxos and Dutton, I’d have been prepared for the stunning pianism we heard on Sunday.
Back to those manuscripts for a moment. Scriabin’s penmanship is at its most decorative when he uses three staves. It’s not just that he can’t fit the notes on the conventional two: he’s asking for simultaneous textures that suggest multiple personalities. Very few pianists are up to this challenge, even the young show-offs who toss off Ravel’s Gaspard as if it were a Clementi sonatina.
Step forward the 63-year-old Donohoe, who took us into the thickets of the Sixth Sonata — so dense that even Scriabin wouldn’t play it in public — and illuminated it with a flickering delicacy. He coloured every voice, revealing a spectral polyphony that other pianists often smudge with the sustaining pedal. I’m sorry if this sounds rude, but he reminded me that heavy people are supposed to be strangely light on their feet when they dance.
My litmus test for a Scriabin pianist is the second half of the Fourth Sonata, whose skipping theme incorporates sadistic cross-rhythms. Scriabin wanted it played ‘as fast as possible, on the verge of the possible… a flight at the speed of light’.
The number of pianists who achieve this effect in the recording studio is vanishingly small. Peter Donohoe attacked it joyfully: his opening speed was no faster than anyone else’s, but his transparent touch revealed the tiniest wisps of accompaniment — and then he gunned us down with the thunderous virtuosity that won him the Tchaikovsky prize.
There were short breaks between the pieces in which the composer Gerard McBurney read well-chosen reminiscences of Scriabin, and once or twice the lights turned red in a nod to his synaesthesia. But this was just subtle framing, not one of those suffocating day-long ‘experiences’ beloved of arts administrators.
This recital was a monumental achievement. I’d have said that playing all Scriabin’s piano sonatas in one afternoon with such accuracy, structural insight and joie de vivre was beyond ‘the verge of the possible’. Donohoe proved me wrong.