Peter Donohoe, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up you the piano and make it your career?

I didn’t really make it my career. It kind of chose me, after many years of vacillating between instruments and other musical disciplines (like composition, musicology etc). Looking back to the beginning the most formative influences were countless people – in a kind of chronological order:

  1. My mother, who was an amateur pianist.
  2. My father, with whom I argued so much that it embarrasses me to remember, but he was right…. and I am still learning from his life lessons.
  3. Alan Taylor, who was the music teacher at my primary school.
  4. All my subsequent piano teachers (Alfred Williams, Donald Clarke, Derek Wyndham, Yvonne Loriod, Olivier Messiaen – more importantly than any pianistic or teaching qualities – they were all wonderful people.)
  5. My percussion teacher, Gilbert Webster – an extraordinary man, with enormous experience at the very highest level (amongst other things he had been the BBC SO’s principal percussionist during the Boulez era). He was the man who, more than any other, showed me how to practise – whatever the instrument.
  6. All my friends, who argued with me when I was convinced that a career as solo pianist was not for me, because I didn’t think I was good enough.
  7. My wife, Elaine, who is herself a professional pianist, critic and supporter.
  8. Martin Roscoe, my two-piano partner of 40 years, and our Best Man.
  9. All the conductors who invited me to work them in my early days, particularly James Loughran, Edward Downes, Charles Groves and Simon Rattle.

Who or what are the most important influences on your playing?

  1. The composers whose works I am trying to communicate to the public.
  2. The public itself.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

  1. Taking the plunge in my early 20s and deciding after all to be a solo pianist.
  2. Maintaining the natural sense of British taste and reserve at the same as learning to be emotionally open, and keeping the balance between the two.
  3. Playing Bach.
  4. Standing in for Daniel Barenboim playing Bach.

What are the particular challenges/excitements of working with an orchestra/ensemble?

Exploring the characters of everyone one works with, and making the most of those characters, rather than going in with a fixed ideal and trying to make everyone fit in with it.

Which recordings are you most proud of?

I don’t know, because I don’t listen to them once I have swallowed my disappointments and approved them. I suspect that the live recording of the Busoni Concerto from the 1988 Proms might be the one I would be least disappointed with.

Do you have a favourite concert venue?

Many in diverse places and for diverse reasons. If I had to choose – the Bolshoisal in the Moscow Conservatory – a great hall, with a great atmosphere, and many wonderful memories.

Who are your favourite musicians?

The ones I am working with at the time. That might seem like a pretentious answer, but it is a good way to look at things. There have been several over the years whom I could name, but better if their identity is not revealed for the sake of the others.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

That depends on the reason it is memorable….

The one that was the most thrilling to listen to was possibly Richter and the Borodin String Quartet playing Brahms 2nd Piano Quartet in Moscow in 1987. Other contenders would be Bernard Haitink and the LPO playing Bruckner’s 8th Symphony, Charles Groves and the BBC SO playing Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony with Jeanne Loriod and John Ogdon in the 1970 Proms, Emerson Lake and Palmer on tour in 1971, Reginald Goodall conducting Wagner at ENO in the 1970s, and a concert given by the Red Army Chorus in Moscow in 1983.

Of my own performances:

  1. The formative ones were Beethoven Piano Concerto 3 with the Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra when I was 12, singing in Bach’s Mass in B minor in Manchester Cathedral when I was 17, my London debut at the 1979 Proms and my US debut at the Hollywood Bowl in 1983.
  2. The most significant and life-changing was the final of the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982.
  3. The most nerve-wracking was when I conducted Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the Hull Philharmonic Orchestra in 2007.
  4. The strangest, although very rewarding, was giving the first ever classical recital in Papua New Guinea in 2006.
  5. The one that went the least well is best left unmentioned, although there are many contenders!

What is your favourite music to play? To listen to? 

Far too many composers and pieces to mention. Much easier to think of pieces of music that I don’t like to play or listen to, and I daren’t name them for the sake of those who disagree – although there are actually very few.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/students?

  1. That we are all part of a culture that is far bigger than we are.
  2. That the greatness of the music and sharing that greatness with the listeners are both far more important than our commercial success and our ego.
  3. That we need to identify in our own minds exactly why we really want to be performing musicians, and what we feel is the true role of music in modern society.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Where I am now, but with more memories and experiences from which to draw.

In the years since his unprecedented success as Silver Medal winner of the 1982 7th International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, Peter Donohoe 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. Read Peter’s full biography here.