Peter Donohoe performs Scriabin’s Piano Sonatas Nos 1-10 and Vers la flamme

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COMPOSERS: Alexander Scriabin
WORKS: Piano Sonatas Nos 1-10; Vers la flamme
PERFORMER: Peter Donohoe (piano)


In 1915, the year of Scriabin’s death, Rachmaninov performed the composer’s Fifth Sonata in his memory. As Prokofiev recalled, when Scriabin ‘had played this sonata everything seemed to be flying upward; with Rachmaninov all the notes stood firmly planted on earth’. Peter Donohoe and Garrick Ohlsson take a similarly down-to-earth approach to Scriabin’s rapturous music in their recordings of the complete sonatas – which is not to say they achieve comparable results.

Of the two, Ohlsson delivers the single best performance with his account of Sonata No. 9, Black Mass. Here he appears genuinely engaged with Scriabin’s febrile world and follows specified tempos with relative conscientiousness. Consistent qualities throughout Ohlsson’s set include his infallibly precise delineation of line and texture, any sense of rambling avoided by his clear articulation of each sonata’s structure (though in the First Sonata he does not repeat the opening exposition). Yet he often disregards tempo markings, for instance turning the Fourth Sonata’s Prestissimo volando into an easy swagger, all the more redolent of a music hall number for his over-emphasis of its swinging 12/8 metre. Indeed, he often appears insensitive to the music’s essential character. When it comes to Scriabin’s would-be transcendental sonatas (No. 6 onwards), fervid instructions such as ‘avec une celeste volupté’ are often toned down to something cooler-headed and more prosaic. The Tenth Sonata, rather than an ecstatic culmination, is a disappointing proliferation of dribbling trills.

Donohoe can sound rather ponderous, but throws a sympathetic light on the earliest sonatas. Revealing their debt to both Chopin and Grieg, he also finds a nobility in the First Sonata’s closing ‘Funebre’, bringing a curious reflective quality to its ‘Quasi niente’ central section. Alas, as Scriabin’s style evolves and becomes more strange and otherworldly, Donohoe’s playing can appear too careful and well-behaved, even enervated. His Tenth Sonata wavers between sounding pernickety and slightly fumbling. Altogether, this is far from Scriabin’s own style, evident in the composer’s few pianola rolls, or such interpreters as Marc-André Hamelin, whose complete sonatas on Hyperion – sure-fingered yet astonishingly fleet and mercurial – capture the music’s airborne as well as its minatory qualities.


Daniel Jaffé