Peter Donohoe in conversation Melanie Spanswick

Today’s guest in my Classical Conversations Series is British pianist Peter Donohoe.

In the years since his unprecedented success as Silver Medal winner of the 1982 7th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Peter has built an extraordinary world-wide  career, encompassing a huge repertoire and over forty years’ experience as a pianist, as well as continually exploring many other avenues in music-making. He is acclaimed as one of the foremost pianists of our time, for his musicianship, stylistic versatility and commanding technique.

During recent seasons Peter’s performances included appearances with the Dresden Staatskapelle with Myung-Whun Chung, Gothenburg Symphony with Gustavo Dudamel and Gurzenich Orchestra with Ludovic Morlot.  He also performed with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and played both Brahms Concertos with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Last season his engagements included appearances with the City of Birmingham Symphony and Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestras and an extensive tour o South America.  He also took part in a major Messiaen Festival in the Spanish city of Cuenca, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Peter played with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Sir Simon Rattle’s opening concerts as Music Director.  He has also recently performed with all the major London Orchestras, Royal Concertgebouw, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Munich Philharmonic, Swedish Radio, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Vienna Symphony and Czech Philharmonic Orchestras. He was an annual visitor to the BBC Proms for seventeen years and has appeared at many other festivals including six consecutive visits as resident artist to the Edinburgh Festival, eleven highly acclaimed appearances at the Bath International Festival, La Roque d’Anthéron in France, and at the Ruhr and Schleswig Holstein Festivals in Germany. In the United States, his appearances have included the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Detroit Symphony Orchestras. Since 1984 he has visited all the major Australian Orchestras many times, and since 1989 he has made several major tours of New Zealand with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. He has recently returned from a highly acclaimed tour of Argentina with the National Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela.

He has worked with many of the worlds’ greatest conductors including Christoph Eschenbach, Neeme Jarvi, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur, Andrew Davis and Yevgeny Svetlanov. More recently he has appeared as soloist with the next generation of excellent conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel, Robin Ticciati and Daniel Harding.

He is a keen chamber musician and performs frequently with the pianist Martin Roscoe.  They have given performances in London and at the Edinburgh Festival and have recorded discs of Gershwin and Rachmaninov.  Other musical partners have included the Maggini Quartet, with whom he has made recordings of several great British chamber works.

In 2001 Naxos released a disc of music by Gerald Finzi, with Peter as soloist, the first of a major series of recordings which aims to raise the public’s awareness of British piano concerto repertoire through concert performance and recordings. Discs of music by Alan Rawsthorne, Sir Arthur Bliss, Christian Darnton, Alec Rowley, Howard Ferguson, Roberta Gerhard, Kenneth Alwyn, Thomas Pitfield, John Gardner and Hamilton Harty have since been released to great critical acclaim.

Peter has made many fine recordings on EMI Records, which have won awards including the Grand Prix International du Disque Liszt for his recording of the Liszt Sonata in B minor and the Gramophone Concerto award for the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 2.  His recordings of Messiaen with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble for Chandos Records and Litolff for Hyperion have also received widespread acclaim. His recording of Brahms’ 1st Concerto with Svetlanov and the Philharmonia Orchestra was voted best available recording by the US magazine Stereo Review.

He studied at Chetham’s School of Music for seven years, graduated in music at Leeds University, where he studied composition with Alexander Goehr, and the Royal Northern College of Music, studying piano with Derek Wyndham. He then went on to study in Paris with Olivier Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod. His prize-winning performances at the British Liszt Competition in London in 1976, the Bartok-Liszt Piano Competition in Budapest in the same year, and the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1981 helped build a major career in the UK and Europe. Then his activity in the competitive world culminated in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1982, which shot his name into world-wide prominence. In June 2011 he returned to Moscow as a jury member for the 14th International Tchaikovsky Competition.

He is vice-president of the Birmingham Conservatoire and has been awarded Honorary Doctorates of Music from the Universities of Birmingham, Central England, Warwick, East Anglia, Leicester and The Open University.

Peter Donohoe was awarded a C.B.E. for services to music in the 2010 New Year’s Honours List.

Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:

Melanie Spanswick: British concert pianist Peter Donohoe has had an extraordinary career spanning over forty years encompassing a huge repertoire. He was silver medalist in the 1982 seventh international Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and was awarded a CBE for his services to music in 2010. So I’m really excited that he’s joining me today here in London for one of my classical conversations.

Peter Donohoe: How kind of you. Thank you.

Melanie Spanswick: Lovely to chat with you.

Peter Donohoe: It makes me feel very old to hear that I’ve been in this profession for forty years, but thank you.

Melanie Spanswick: Not at all! Not at all!

Well I’m going to start right away by asking you all about your musical education, how old you were when you started to play, kind of what was the catalyst, do you come from a musical family?

Peter Donohoe: Well, I think I do, but not in any way professional musicians. But, I remember my mother’s parents being very interested in music on a sort of light level. Light operetta and things like that. They seemed to know a lot of pieces. And my mother played the piano because they had a piano when she was young. By the time I was born she’d finished, basically, playing it, but it was there and I was attracted to it. Everyone seemed to know all the tunes. So it was in the family, but not it any practical sense.

My parents, particularly my father actually, would basically support whatever I wanted to do in a big way. The idea was always in my family, really whatever you decide to do, that’s up to you, but you must do it properly.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s so important isn’t it?

Peter Donohoe: Yeah.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s important.

Peter Donohoe: So if I decide to do something else they would have also supported that. And I decided to be, from really before I can remember, I decided to be a professional musician of some sort. Not necessarily the piano, although that was what I first gravitated towards. But music just fascinated me in all its forms including live music on the radio. So that’s how it came about. And I was very lucky. I was born lucky. I have to say, I don’t know how it comes about and I hope it never stops. Just the most extraordinary coincidences have made things very positive for me. One of them was that my parents didn’t know who to ask to be a piano teacher for me. They had no idea and they didn’t ask anyone either. They just looked in the book and saw the guy that was closet geographically to where we lived. He was literally a five minute walk away. And he was a really good teacher. That’s the most crucial thing of the lot.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: In the end. When you’re really…..I did learn from my mother for maybe three years. Not, obviously, a proper relationship in terms between teacher and pupil. But then my father persuaded me to go to proper formal piano lessons. And, you know, just to be chosen on that basis is a miraculous thing.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: Because it had been a bad teacher that would have been the end of it. And I think that happens so often.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah. Well, I was about say which teacher was crucial in your development as a pianist because the thing…

Peter Donohoe: Yeah, well, they’ve all been great. And, you know, he was the first. Alfred Williams, his name was. Alfred, who probably died in the 80s? Something like that. He was quite an old chap when I first went to him which was when I was 7, having started at the age of four with my mother. He was… he was a performer and I actually did go and hear him play Beethoven’s first concerto, maybe a year after I started with him, with a local orchestra. I think it was the Salford Symphony Orchestra. I’m not sure but I think it was. And, you know, he was a real musician. He wasn’t just someone picking up a few quid teaching on the side.

Melanie Spanswick: yeah.

Peter Donohoe: He was really dedicated and he made a really good job of starting me off, getting me to hold my hands properly and sitting in the right position.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: And a lot of the things that first-time teachers don’t do.

Melanie Spanswick: It was crucial that, wasn’t he?

Melanie Spanswick: Absolutely, he was. He actually had a… [Coughs] Excuse me. He actually had a slightly acrimonious conversation with my father on the basis that he didn’t really know what to do with me. This was after, I don’t know, four years? Something like that. Basically I was totally undisciplined and uncontrollable and he had to send me to someone else because he didn’t know what to do anymore. And that’s what happened he sent me to a wonderful man called Donald Clark; who later, this is going to sound weird because he was my chemistry teacher at school.

He later became the director of studies for Chethams’s. He was, as far as I understand it, Donald was someone who could walk through any degree course he wanted to, in science. He was just naturally very able to do it, but wasn’t particularly interested it in. His deep love was music.

And he was, as a chemistry master, at Chetham’s school in Manchester, all his spare time was taken up going to concerts and doing private teaching on the piano. And he took me on for three years and he was great. He was a good chemistry teacher too.

Melanie Spanswick: Dual purpose!

Peter Donohoe:  Absolutely!

Melanie Spanswick: So then you went to Chetham’s and?

Peter Donohoe: Yeah, I went to Chetham’s and that coincided with Donald. And then three years later Donald did the same thing. Said “I can’t control this guy”. I’m not sure what the problem was but apparently I’m uncontrollable. And he sent me off to do an interview actually, an audition at the Royal Manchester College of Music to see if they would provide me with a part-time course. A visit once a week, essentially, after school to study with a teacher. And the person who was supposed to listen to me was the principle, Fredrick Cox, but he was ill and he sent someone he’d obviously highly regarded, Derrick Wyndham, to listen. And Derrick Wyndham said he wanted to teach me himself. And that was for eight years. Right through the rest of school and then on through university. And also, Royal Northern College which it had turned into by then. So that was the longest relationship. He was also a very fine teacher.

All three of them absolutely disinterested in their own ego and their own self-promotion. It was all down to doing the best they could for their pupils.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah, and I wanted to ask you, because you went to Paris to study with Messiaen.

Peter Donohoe: Yeah.

Melanie Spanswick: That must have been fascinating.

Peter Donohoe: Well, that was at the end of my college career, which was a fairly colourful four years. I didn’t know what to do with myself because I hadn’t, at least at the time of making the decision, I hadn’t fully decided that I wanted to be a solo pianist. I was just doing it because people kept asking me to do it.

Melanie Spanswick: Incredible isn’t it?

Peter Donohoe: And I wasn’t convinced that, well, a) that I wanted to do… be part of the life style that I know enjoy.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: Because I didn’t’ really know what it was. And also, I wasn’t convinced that I was good enough. Simple as that. I didn’t know whether that’s really true, I was very self-doubting. And also I was also fascinated by other music that didn’t involve the piano. I played a lot of other instruments, mostly very badly, but one of them was percussion and I was good at that. I was in fact offered the job in the Halle as a percussion player, which I turned down in the 70s sometime. And I nearly, I nearly went for it. I could’ve been a professional percussion player for the rest of my life. I don’t know whether I would have found it rewarding in the end, possibly not, but it seemed to be very attractive at the time because it was security and it was being involved in what I then considered to be a very exciting life.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes, I can imagine.

Peter Donohoe: As a member of an orchestra, touring around, playing pieces that pianists don’t get exposed to. And all the friends you get as a member of an orchestra.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah. Which is something pianists never get.

Peter Donohoe: It’s an opportunity that’s, that’s really not, it doesn’t come our way at all. That kind of friendship. Whether it’s real friendship is another question. That all depends on the individual. But it does feel like it. It’s a group of

Melanie Spanswick: Musicians working together.

Peter Donohoe: Comrades, yeah. And of course a very anti conductor and, yeah, all that stuff. [laughs] while we’re playing this god-awful programme, again. And all those things. And, obviously, I liked that. And I’m very aware of it now. That’s that’s what they’ll be thinking.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: Why do we have to have this soloist again? [laughter] You know?

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: I can… I’m actually very glad to say I’ve been exposed to that. It was a fun time, really. But then I left, as you said, I went to Paris. And it was almost like I was trying to find some way that I could continue to study music without doing the obvious route, without going to New York to study at the Julliard or Moscow. I just didn’t want to do the obvious. And I loved Messiaen. I discovered Messiaen when I was still at school and when I was taken to a prom concert in 1969. That still remains possibly the most important formative event of my teenage years in terms of what I do now.

When that Charles Groves conducted the Turangalila Symphony. And it was a most stunning event. It was party because I’d been to London several times as a child, but that was the first time in quite some years I’d actually set foot in the capital, and I’d never been to a prom, and it was a very hot summer and it was the summer of love and …

Melanie Spanswick: Very exciting.

Peter Donohoe: Incredible, yeah. Kensington Gardens was full of hippies. And the Turangalila Symphony was about love. It had love plastered across a poster and they all decided “I must go to my first classical concert”. So the audience was full of hippies and they were all doing this [gestures peace signs].

Melanie Spanswick: Oh wow!

Peter Donohoe: Doing this for the fifth movement and crying with emotion during the sixth movement. It was an extraordinary day and I think it convinced me.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah [laughs].

Peter Donohoe: That’s what I wanted to do. And I did. I was very, I mean I was ambitious to do something that most people would have said “There’s no chance whatsoever”. But I played at the Turangalila Symphony at the Proms in 1986.


Melanie Spanswick: Determination!

Peter Donohoe: Yeah! But actually the funny thing about it was that I wanted to be in the percussion session, when I first heard it in 1969. It wasn’t really the piano part that attracted me then, but that’s what I became known as, a pianist.

Melanie Spanswick: Now, I must ask you, how did you develop your technique?




Peter Donohoe: Who knows? Who knows the answer?

Melanie Spanswick: Where you a Czerny study practicer? A Chopin study practicer?

Peter Donohoe: I was unwilling, but I was persuaded to do Czerny. And more specifically, or more relevantly actually, I was persuaded to do Hanon. And the reason that’s become very relevant is because I do it now. And I recommend other people do it now as well. And I know plenty of my colleagues who would say that was the opposite of what we should do; that it was some kind of anti-musical experience that you don’t need to do. And I don’t agree with them because I have definitely felt many improvements in what I do from playing those exercises.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes. Sure.

Peter Donohoe: Mostly in that way in terms of sound. Not particularly dexterity, but sound production and variety and confidence, actually.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: And that was Donald Clark who got me onto that when I was 12. And I was so bored of it. I can’t tell you. And I was so unwilling to do it. Donald use to tear his hair out, what bit there was of it, and he threw plenty of tantrums at me. He shouted and bawled and went red and slammed doors and all sorts of things at me because I was so difficult. And that was one of the reasons I just wouldn’t play the exercises. But you know, how it comes back, when you get older, you remember, “oh yeah”.

My father and I had the same kind of relationship. All sorts of things that he told me I should do and I resisted. And we argued and argued and argued. And once he died, which was when I was 21, I suddenly realized how right he’d been. And I’ve been trying to please him ever since.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s funny, yeah. Well, I wanted to ask you also because you came second in the, silver medal, in the Tchaikovsky and you’ve been a major prize winner in many competitions

Peter Donohoe: Well, sort of, yeah.

Melanie Spanswick: How did they shape and change your career? Do you feel they were really important or would you have been as successful without them?

Peter Donohoe: It’s impossible to know, isn’t it? What would have happened? You can’t… I wouldn’t have gone to the Moscow competition had I not done the [Leeds?] competition the year before. Which, essentially, I didn’t do well at all. I’ve only… well to be honest, I’ve only taken part in four competitions, but I was a finalist in all four of them and didn’t actually win any of them. But they all contributed a huge amount to my development. And you can make any can make any negative experience a positive one. I’d like to think that, well I’m sure very few people who are listening to this and I’m sure you won’t’ remember it because it was a long time ago, but I did the Leeds competition in 81.

Melanie Spanswick: I do remember it, actually!

Peter Donohoe: Yeah?

Melanie Spanswick: I was watching, yes.

Peter Donohoe: I was actually the recipient of a lot of sympathy votes from that. Including the BBC and the Proms and various sources around the UK who really thought that was a bad result and they kind of put their money where their mouth was. Which was wonderful. For the next year I was doing all kinds of dates because of that, that I wouldn’t have done otherwise and I was very grateful.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: It made me feel that it was worthwhile. The thing about competitions, and I know this now as a jury member, it’s one thing to be eliminated from the first round because nobody knows anything about it. It’s quite another to make the finals.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: And then come in at the end of the queue. Which is what happened then. Interestingly, in the 2012 competition in Leeds, I was a guest and we had a, Fanny Waterman and I had a kind of public discussion about the whole thing of competitions and whatever came up, essentially. And of course my appearance in the 81 competition was brought up and we talked about it. And actually it was really moving and touching, the content both on stage and in private with Fanny It was a really remarkable… it was sort of closure.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah?

Peter Donohoe: It was great. It was wonderful. And that, the real truth is that competition in 81 was the reason that I entered Moscow. I didn’t realize, basically, what a connection, I instinctively have with Russian music. Had no idea, apart from Stravinsky, whose music I always loved when I was younger. Which is more European than Russian in some ways anyways. But during that next year I put a lot of effort into studying and understanding the great Russian composers and then I went to the competition and it seemed to work. I don’t, I can’t explain it. I don’t know. The moment I walked into the Soviet Union with all its problems and difficulties and its climate and all the terrible things that had happened, the terrible hotel, you know all the things. For all of that, I loved it there and I still do. And it’s not because it was Soviet and it’s not because it isn’t any more. It’s something to do with the place and the people and the culture. It’s really phenomenal. And there’s nowhere quite like it. It gets under your skin like people say about Africa or South American.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: Yeah.

Melanie Spanswick: Do you think that competitions can still establish young pianist, because we got so many of them now, haven’t’ we?

Peter Donohoe:  Too many.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes, I was going to say do you think they actually mean anything anymore?

Peter Donohoe: I don’t know how else you could do it as a young person, that’s the problem.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: There are more and more people wanting to be musicians and less and less people wanting to listen. Which is a really serious problem.

Melanie Spanswick: It is.

Peter Donohoe: And this includes the musicians. They don’t really listen to each other either. One of the most important aspects, and we just mentioned the Soviet Union, one of the most important things about that culture is that they all went to each other’s concerts. And they discussed it all, you know? It’s almost conjured up an image of Brahms and all his colleagues at the Red Hedgehog in Vienna talking about and also the 20s in Paris, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. And all the artists as well all talking on this very high level. And that doesn’t happen anymore. People practice and play concerts and make recordings and they’re not really as, I know there are exceptions, but they’re not as interested as they should be in other performers. And learning from each other. Essentially we’re all magpies in the end. We need to be able to do that. We need to admit it, that that’s very much a part of what culture is. So if you have a situation where there are less and less listeners and less opportunities to start a career, the only possible way is a competition.

There is a huge, and always has been as long as I can remember, a huge movement against competitions. But you can’t stop them and there’s no alternative. I’m quoting Fanny Waterman. What are you going to do instead?

Melanie Spanswick: So you’ve been on many competitions, many juries, and what are you looking for when you… when you… what is it in a soloist that you want to see? For the winner?

Peter Donohoe: I wish I could. I wish I could identify it. It’s actually not true that I’ve done an awful lot of it. I’ve been on eight juries.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s quite a few though.

Peter Donohoe: Is it?

Melanie Spanswick: I would imagine.

Peter Donohoe: It’s certainly very hard work to do it well. It’s probably quite easy to do it badly. And maybe some do. To be honest I’ve never really had any issue with more than a couple of people that I’ve been involved with on juries. It’s very very tempting though, I think, to be the bad guy. You know, the young pianist identifies the one who’s a thorn in their side, to make sure they don’t do well. It’s kind of, it’s very tempting. It’s a power trip and of course you must avoid that. You must at all costs avoid manipulation, you must be prepared to listen to someone you’ve never heard of before with the same ears as one of your own students. You know, things like that. And that’s very hard to do. It’s very easy for people to say “he’s prejudice”.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: And it’s very easy to be prejudice. It’s very difficult to avoid it. You have to work extremely hard, you have to make sure your listening to everyone with equal intention. You do not go to sleep, you don’t complain that it’s early in the afternoon and you just had red wine for lunch because you shouldn’t be having it if it affects you like that.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s right.

Peter Donohoe: And so on. You know it’s, it’s a difficult job and I’ve been.. I’ve been very critical of juries in the past when I was myself a competitor. Of course, that’s what we all do.  You spent… I mean at the Moscow competition I was there for five weeks and there’s nothing else to do in Moscow in those days, nothing at all. There’s plenty to do now, but in those days you stayed in the hotel bar and a piece of cucumber and polish beer and very little else was available and you talked about the jury. Because that was your biggest preoccupation at that stage.

Melanie Spanswick: Sure.

Peter Donohoe: Now that I’m regularly on the juries of these things, I can see the other side. It’s very easy to do, it’s very easy to fall into the trap. I’ve been looking out whenever I’ve been on the jury for an example of someone who is blatantly, well not so blatantly, manipulating anything and I honestly haven’t really found any.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s good.

Peter Donohoe: It is. I’m prepared to walk out if somebody does. And I was actually the chairman of one in Vilnius Lithuania. A smallish competition, but a nice one. Very nice. In something like 2007 or so, I think that was when it was. Actually, no it wasn’t. It was earlier in 2003 or 4. I was, I was ready to deal with any problem and the only people I had to deal with were the press. The people in the jury where fantastic and every one of them was so determined to do the right thing.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes. Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: And not to feel that they were a part of this imaginary set of corrupt prejudice bigots that we tend to imagine so many of them are. I don’t think… if they do exist I’ve not come across them, put it that way, but you know in Moscow in 2011 I was on the Tchaikovsky competition jury, which of course was an amazingly emotional experience.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah. Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: Because I was coming back to the… to the place that started me off, at least international. And, well, I was absolutely ready, and even to say so to the press, to leave if there was any funny stuff. And there wasn’t. I hear rumors at other things, but on the piano jury we had a wonderful time and everyone behaved themselves impeccably and abided by the rules that were set and we didn’t talk about things in the bar the way you’re supposed to not do, you know. I hear stories all the time that people do that and if they do, they shouldn’t. It’s just that I didn’t come across it.

Melanie Spanswick: Sure.

Peter Donohoe: It’s very difficult though. My biggest problem with being on a jury will always be comparing someone who plays generally very professionally in a very experienced way and is a really good musician all around, compare that person with someone who plays on piece really wonderfully and the rest of what they play isn’t so great or is up and down in some way.

Because it could be that the part that they’re playing really fantastically well is actually greater than the other person and how do you know how that’s going to develop? If they get the prize, the first prize particularly, but any prize really in the Tchaikovsky competition produces a career and there are 12 prizes, so you know. If they get one of these prizes, they will then experience something that will change their play anyway. I they don’t, they won’t experience it.

 Melanie Spanswick: Yes. I can imagine, yes.

 Peter Donohoe: So, it’s a very responsible position to be in and you can destroy someone just by ignoring their great qualities and coming out with a result that does not represent what they did. And you can make someone temporally who shouldn’t be made, because of some anomaly in the voting system or something. It’s very nerve racking.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: Every competition I’ve been on has a wonderful atmosphere before it starts.

Melanie Spanswick: [Laughter]

Peter Donohoe: And in fact, that atmosphere continues up to the first round and then you make a decision about who goes to second round. All of a sudden, you make enemies and it’s inevitable. It’s dreadful.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes I can imagine. Yes.

Peter Donohoe: There’s actually a photograph somewhere on the internet. That was taken from the audience when the jury when I was in Moscow, including me, were set on the stage in a semi circle and the announcement was being made of who was going through to the second round and there’s a photograph of me in tears, and I’m not inclined in that way I promise, but it got to me really seriously at that point because we had to reduce, I think it was 30 down to 12 people, so 18 people had to be thrown out.

Melanie Spanswick: 18 wonderful players. I’m sure.

Peter Donohoe:  Almost all of them were very good yes.  I maybe even appeared on the internet. When were being interviewed, maybe I appeared over the top, I don’t really know but I was god smacked by the level of all of them, by almost all of them, I can’t say a 100% but almost everyone that played was wonderful to listen to. And to actually have to tell 18 of them they couldn’t go to the second round really somehow just churned me up. It was awful. Particularly in the case of those who are too old to enter again.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes, the last chance.

Peter Donohoe: But you have to do it, you have to. But you are thinking, by the way all you can to do is contribute to vote; a democratic vote…14 people maybe, I don’t remember what the number was, the jury all do the same and what comes out of the machine at the end is the mean average. And so, your own particular desire might not be represented anyway. In fact, it very really is, in all honesty. Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s so obvious that everyone feels the same but occasionally it varies and you have a real…an obvious disagreement that can’t be aired. You can’t talk about it.

Melanie Spanswick: No. no, I can imagine.

Peter Donohoe: That’s quite right. You shouldn’t at least until it is over. And so, you know somebody is eliminated from one of the rounds of the competition and instinctively of course they hold every member of that jury responsible for that.

Melanie Spanswick: Of course. That’s very difficult. [Laughter]

Peter Donohoe: Well, it’s a bit disconcerting to know that you wanted them to go through but they didn’t or whatever.

Melanie Spanswick: I can imagine. Yes.

Peter Donohoe: Sometimes the other way round by the way [Laughter] But you know it’s very easy also, when somebody 30 years later is a huge success that was eliminated from the jury you were on at some point and you go to them, I voted for you, yes of course you did. And of course, I wouldn’t believe them either. But that does happen, of course it does. I know it, it happened in Moscow. I know. If I’m not to name anyone but I know that there was a wonderful pianist who was simply eliminated from the first round essentially because they haven’t been noticed. I know that sounds a bit odd,  but it’s like I’m trying to avoid being very specific, but if you appear as the first candidate on the second or third day of the first round, you’re in a very anonymous position.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: It’s very difficult to be noticed however well you play and that can happen, it did happen and I do feel rather strongly that just it just went by, like that…..

Melanie Spanswick: You just hope that pianist has found some other way of drawing attention to themselves.

Peter Donohoe: Absolutely.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s the thing isn’t it?

Peter Donohoe: Well in fact for young pianists, it’s the ultimate, you might as just go home in most cases, you just might as well leave if you draw number one to play.

Melanie Spanswick: So much of luck.

Peter Donohoe: It’s terrible isn’t it? When I was in Moscow, as a candidate or competitor in 1982, there was a girl who’d been there 4 years earlier for the same competition and she drew number one for both. Which was unbelievable when you consider that there were 104 to choose from, she drew number one, the second time…

Melanie Spanswick: Very sad….

Peter Donohoe:  It was awful. Yeah. I don’t honestly know how she played because I didn’t listen to the performance but it was lucky bit doomed from the start, you know.

Melanie Spanswick: I want to ask you about some composers and pieces that you find most complex or demanding to play or things that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily be drawn to play or things that you started to learn and you thought, no this isn’t for me or you’ve had to work really hard at playing.

Peter Donohoe: Yes. In most cases when that’s happened, I’ve come back to it later and when I got a little bit older. Schumann was one of those. I found everything about Schumann very difficult to understand, the imagination that he had and the….. and actually the pure technical aspects of his playing, must be different in mine because I found it extremely difficult to come to terms with and I left it alone for a long time and then I came back to it and it’s amongst my favorite composers now and to play as well as to listen to and you know in my case, I’m not in any way breaking it either because it’s not necessarily an advantage that’s how I learn things very quickly. And sometimes it’s too quick. Sometimes if you’re not very careful you have to be very… vigilant about not relying upon talent, as what it is.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: Quick memory, harmonic understanding of the music in a way that…. it’s good, it’s an advantage in some way. But in other ways, it makes it too easy to get it into your head and to memorise it and not to really explore the depths of it properly. And I’ve probably… for most of my adult life, I’ve worked on slowing it down, of making sure when something is coming which I don’t yet know, that… to spread it across two years rather than doing it to the last minute which I could do. It’s not good.

Melanie Spanswick: No.

Peter Donohoe: And I could promise everyone it’s not how your brain works, it is not good. It is always better to do it slowly. There is one short noticed engagement that I took on 1976 at five days notice, to play Liszt’s first concerto with the Halle, because somebody was ill…. And I didn’t know it, because we all know Liszt’s first concerto, but I didn’t play it. And I didn’t let on that I didn’t play it. I just learned it in 5 days and did it and it went quite well. In fact it went very well to be honest. It’s quite a difficult piece but by no means the hardest thing, if it had been Rachmaninov three, I don’t think it would have been remotely possible. But it’s not…you know, it’s not desperate, but the performance came and went, I did four in the same week and I would say… I would swear that 3 months later, I’ve forgotten it.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes, I can imagine. But memorisation is obviously not a problem for you, if we’re talking about memorisation.

Peter Donohoe: On the whole it isn’t, No.

Melanie Spanswick: So you got a kind of photographic memory or do you have to work at it digitally?

Peter Donohoe: I don’t know. It’s not… It’s not really photographic, it’s a little bit photographic, but not very… not very reliably so. I’ve learned a new word for it recently which is eidetic. Eidetic memory, apparently means that you use all kinds of different senses. It is very solid, it means you use the tactile one, the visual one, audio…. all kinds of different things, even smells. Although I don’t know how that works.


Melanie Spanswick: I’ve never heard of that before.

Peter Donohoe: No it doesn’t really work. But you know, if you imagine, that I know where the page turns are when I’m playing from memory and I know what the chords look like on the page in some places, but not all places and then you combine that with physical memory, which doesn’t really work so well if it’s very slow. Works well if it’s quick and difficult to practice, you know. There’s all sorts of other things that come into it, and I think if it goes into my memory too easily. And then  of course, if you’re not very carefully can fall straight out again particularly under pressure.

Melanie Spanswick: Interesting.

Peter Donohoe: For it to be solid in the subconscious, that’s very important.

Peter Donohoe: It becomes part of you coz it’s in your blood then. There have been occasional things that you know, I felt I knew perfectly well but then a couple of years later, I’ve forgotten all about them. It’s really strange. I just forget. No, I don’t even know how it start sometimes. It’s a very weird thing how it works. It seems inconsistent as well. You can’t really have a formula.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s interesting.

Peter Donohoe: There’s pieces that… actually this is a good example of what I was actually about to say. In 2005, for four years or so I made my main project to play and perform as many times as I could the Bach Preludes and Fugues, all of them. Which takes a long time. I think its 3 hours to 10 minutes in total and then I did them in 2 concerts sometimes on the same day. It’s the hardest thing I think I ever did in so many ways.

Melanie Spanswick: I’m sure.

Peter Donohoe: Yes, I mean by a very long way. In fact the most difficult, memorising those Fugues under pressure. I mean playing them from memory under pressure. It’s just so demanding.

Melanie Spanswick: Incredibly. I can imagine. You did all of them.

Peter Donohoe: Yeah I only did it once. I can probably play it from memory now in private but in public it’s a different matter…

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: And once you lose a Fugue you don’t get back. You might as well go onto the next one.  I did it once. I did it on Bach’s birthday in 2008. I did play all of them from memory on the same day which was a coincidence that it was his birthday to be honest, I didn’t even know when we planned the concer tbut something made it happen. And it was in Bath abbey….

Melanie Spanswick: Lovely.

Peter Donohoe: And the environment and the atmosphere and everything was just so perfect for it and I felt very at one with it. it was one of the most special concerts I’ve been involved in. It’s not possible to predict that it can happen again. It’s not possible to be sure. I certainly wasn’t sure the day before that. But it did, it worked. And it probably is the biggest single challenge from every point of view that any pianist could ever get involved in. The Bartok Second Concerto is nothing.  [Laughter] the Busoni, the Prokofiev Second, and all these things that we do. They are all very difficult but that’s the hardest of them all.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah. I believe that. Absolutely.

Peter Donohoe: Particularly for me, you know. I used to be a drummer. What do I know of that?

Melanie Spanswick: Which composers are you particularly drawn to? What do you really love to play?

Peter Donohoe: It’s much easier to answer what I don’t get drawn to. [Laughter] The longer I play, the more I love virtually everything. I don’t think… I hope that it’s not because I don’t have any critical faculties, it’s not just that I like playing anything because it’s there you know. I just seem to enjoy more and more particularly those I get to know with years, almost all composers. And there are maybe 3 major composers, fairly major anyway, who I’m not drawn to. I’m not going say who they are but you can have look at all the things I play you could probably work it out.

Melanie Spanswick: Well I want to ask you about British composers because I think it was in 2001 that you started on a whole project of recording British. I think it was a piano concertos?

Peter Donohoe: Yes.

Melanie Spanswick: It’s amazing, you’ve recorded loads – Sir Arthur Bliss, Alan Rawsthorne and Alec Rowley to name a few. So what draw you to this start? How did that come about?

Peter Donohoe: I think, without wishing to make  it  seem simplistic, I think it’s partly because I’m British and I love British music, opera and string quartets and choral music, particularly the oratorios. I love British composers long before I turned to the piano concertos. This is something, as with all nations, it’s something unique about the style. But actually, it was the Russian example that made me suddenly realize just how different we are. How unsupportive of our own culture we are instinctively.

Melanie Spanswick: That’s right. Yes.

Peter Donohoe:  And when you see the pride of the Russians which is like the opposite. Well actually, not just the great ones but the lesser composers and maybe even lesser performers. The Russians have such support, such belief from friends and families and well never mind the public you know. The whole thing is so different to the way we regard, I’m not talking about performers, I’m really talking about the music itself. The way British dismiss their own music, there’s only Elgar that anyone is actually prepared to mention. Literally there is not single British concerto in the repertoire.

Melanie Spanswick: No?

Peter Donohoe:  the standard repertoire, the one that comes close is probably John Ireland but he’s not playing very often. He’s certainly only regarded as a kind of oddity. Oh let’s put a bit of British music in for bit a change. I have accumulated a library of British concertos of a 147 pieces. I would say that 20 of them are probably really great pieces. One of them is probably up there with the best globally, and I think that’s the Arthur Bliss.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: I think Britten and Tippett come quite close but I think the Bliss is just so phenomenal and there are so many others. Some of them are worth playing occasionally and of course some of them are not worth playing I suppose. You’ve got to admit it, every country has plenty of that but it’s worth giving an airing to. And to just automatically turn away from it just because it’s from Britain just seems to be so, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s instinctive or traditional or …

Melanie Spanswick: We are apologetic aren’t we?

Peter Donohoe:yes, It is something like that. Yes it’s like we’re embarrassed to be proud of it.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: You know, the Russians don’t understand that. They will take the music of… I might as well name someone… the music of Dargomyzhsky or someone who is you know an interesting rather Eastern composer in the late 19th century, mainly of songs in Russia. And he is hailed as an absolute all-time great because he is Russian and because they believe in him. And they are right to believe in him. It’s just that he isn’t Shostakovich or Prokofiev, but he’s still an interesting composer.

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah, it’s a shame.

Peter Donohoe: Yes, it’s a great shame.

Melanie Spanswick: What are the greatest challenges about being a concert pianist?

Peter Donohoe: How long have you got?


Peter Donohoe: I think the biggest single issue that I have to deal if a young person, a teenager is thinking of doing it, is that in order to do it well, you really do have to concentrate at such a degree on it that everything else goes by the board and if it doesn’t work, you’re then left with nothing. I think that’s a real problem and I was terribly lucky in that respect, because first of all the education in some way I received, although it was a little bit quirky, it was actually a very good one in languages and history in particular. So I was able to, to some degree it’s not about being able to do the subjecst, it’s about relating to other people and not just being a…

Melanie Spanswick: Yeah.

Peter Donohoe: musician and having knowledge that isn’t all about music. I suppose also being able to place the music in context that does help as well. I was lucky in so far as I was on that side before, committed to the piano rather later than most people are, I was 24 before I actually said I want to be a pianist you know.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: For all that time, I was resisting it. The challenge to me then I suppose was establishing that it was worthwhile. That I was actually did have something to offer, if not I would have gone the usual route. I suppose in other ways, the repertoire I played was very 20th century based at the time particularly in my early 20’s and I gradually went backwards. I’m not answering your question at all!

Melanie Spanswick: [Laughter] but it’s fascinating….

Peter Donohoe: What are the challenges? Oh there are so many issues to deal with. You are a soloist, you are perceived by the public and press and everyone else as a sort of hierarchy of conductor, soloist, orchestra. Sort of…

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: the deputy or something in a company. The deputy director.

Melanie Spanswick: Yes.

Peter Donohoe: and the orchestra is divided into foreman….and the workers you know. It’s all bit rubbish now because we’re all musicians and we’re all working together. And actually getting over that issue is a problem particularly in Britain because of instinctive class system and a that. But you know the people who are either at the top or the bottom of what they perceive of our class system, they actually behave in that way and you have to encourage them to be different. To actually have a voice, if you’re playing in the middle of an orchestra you do have a voice and in a piano concerto, it’s no different.  Plenty of music, as we all know, plenty of music’s got very important part for all the people in the orchestra but they have to be convinced that what they are doing is important as well as us. That’s very hard, that’s one of the challenges. Maybe I’m thinking about it because I used to be one of them. I was that soldier you know. I was at the back of the orchestra and I was being dismissed by a soloist or a conductor as unimportant, they got to me. This isn’t about some kind of hierarchical competition, this is about the piece. The guy who’s the boss wrote this and the rest of us are his servants. You know. I’m not… that’s something I found a big challenge over the years is to get maybe myself out of that frame of mind but certainly everyone else. You know.

Melanie Spanswick: what’s playing the piano mean to you?

Peter Donohoe: It’s a way of justifying my existence. I can’t do anything else. I used to play the drums but you know that’s a thing of the past. What does it mean? It’s what I… it’s what I’m on earth to do I suppose. It’s as simple as that because I started at a very early age to play the piano. I resisted the purely practical aspect of specializing in being a pianist until I was 24 and then I decided to go along with it. It’s all I’ve ever done really. You know. It’s what I am. That’s what it means. If without it, I would be nothing but if I decided at the age of 4, that I wanted to be a naval officer, perhaps the same would’ve happened then. I don’t know. Perhaps the navy would have been my life. I think probably that’s a plus to all of us isn’t it. You know, if you have a vocation of any sort.

Melanie Spanswick: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Peter Donohoe: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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