Some unusual fare at the London Piano Series

CPE Bach, Schumann, Debussy, Dale, Bowen: Danny Driver (piano) Wigmore Hall, London. 9.7. 2011 (RBB)

CPE Bach: Sonata in B flat H25

Schumann: Symphonic Etudes Op 13

Debussy: Images Book II

Benjamin Dale: Night Fancies – Impromptu in D Flat Op 3

York Bowen: Piano Sonata No. 6 in B Flat minor Op 160

Danny Driver has recently issued CDs of the piano music of CPE Bach, York Bowen ( review) and Benjamin Dale to very positive critical acclaim. This recital provided a vehicle, therefore, for him to showcase some of the pieces from these discs, as well as providing an opportunity to hear him in more traditional works by Schumann and Debussy. I was disappointed to see so many empty seats in the Wigmore Hall given Mr Driver’s distinguished credentials as an up and coming young Classical artist, although this may have been because of the decision to programme works by less familiar composers.

CPE Bach was the second surviving son of the great JS Bach, and he composed in the transitional period between the Baroque and Classical eras and was a great composer in his own right. He composed extensively for keyboard and the sonata in B flat is one of a number of piano sonatas. It is in three movements with the two outer movements foreshadowing Mozart and Haydn. Driver brought out the wit, quirkiness and rhythmic subtlety of the first movement. The second movement with its dotted rhythms (no doubt influenced by JS Bach) was dramatic and expressive while the finale was light and elegant and delivered with technical finesse. Driver’s decision to champion this composer reminded me of Horowitz’s championing of Clementi’s music. I hope that it will lead to many more people being exposed to the music.

Schumann’s ‘Études Symphoniques’ are a set of variations which also serve as concert studies because of their technical demands. The work was originally published in 1836 but revised by Schumann in 1852 with the composer removing two of the original variations from this later set. Nowadays, many pianists play the original set together with some further études which were published posthumously but Driver, somewhat unusually, elected to play the later 1852 set. Driver’s performance was technically assured throughout, and he conjured a wide range of tone colours and textures from the piano reflecting the mercurial changes of mood and flights of fancy which are so intrinsic to Schumann’s music. It was a very muscular, big toned performance and the pyrotechnics were well under his fingers. The audience responded enthusiastically with a loud ‘Bravo’ at the end.

Debussy’s second set of Images were composed in 1907 and consist of three pieces (‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’; ‘Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut’; and ‘Poissions d’or’). Driver really showed his range with this work by demonstrating extraordinary control of texture and sonority, and by using a full palate of tone colour to create atmosphere and a rich array of musical effects. If I had to quibble, I thought the multi-layered textures in the first piece could have been even more finely graded and ‘Poissions d’or’ was a little loud to begin with, but this should not detract from what was a superlative performance.

Dale and Bowen were British composers whose main works were composed in the first half of the 20th century. They were fellow students at the Royal Academy of Music, and Bowen’s biographer reported that the two spent “many hours at the opera together…listening to Wagner….so moved that they walked the streets together [for] hours afterwards”. Dale’s knowledge of Wagner may have influenced some of the chromatic harmonies in his impromptu in D Flat. The spirit of Elgar also seems to hover over the beginning and end of the work which has an understated Edwardian character, while there is a quicksilver scherzo in the middle. Driver characterised the outer sections beautifully playing with real charm and sensitivity while he was fully on top of the passage work in the mercurial scherzo.

Bowen’s Sixth Piano Sonata is the last work he ever wrote (it was published in 1961 the year of Bowen’s death) and it consists of 3 movements (an opening allegro, an introspective intermezzo and a final toccata). It is an overtly virtuoso work, with the first movement having overtones of Rachmaninov and Medtner. Driver seemed to relish the dramatic qualities in the first movement and was fully in control of the rich harmonic textures and demanding passage work. The slow movement was wistful and expressive while Driver showed amazing digital control in the finger bending virtuoso finale which was articulated very clearly and cleanly. Driver played the first of Chopin’s Op 25 etudes as a well deserved encore.

Danny Driver is clearly an exceptionally talented pianist and artist and I hope that his championing of these lesser known composers will lead to many more people listening to these wonderful works.

Robert Beattie