United Kingdom Bach, Chopin, Ligeti, Beethoven. Danny Driver (piano). Wigmore Hall, London 21.2.2012 (RB)
Bach: Partita No. 1 in B flat, BWV825
Chopin: 12 Études, Op 25
Ligeti: 4 Études
Beethoven: Piano Sonata in C minor, Op 111
This was a very ambitious recital from Danny Driver and he is to be commended for tackling such a wide range of repertoire, and for daring to play Beethoven’s final C minor sonata. Many performers prefer to wait until they are older before they feel ready to approach this sublime and highly original work, but it is good to see younger pianists tackling it.
Driver opened his recital with the first of Bach’s partitas which is a highly lyrical work. Bach’s keyboard music often allows pianists to be highly creative and inventive while at the same time showing their appreciation of baroque period practice and ornamentation. Driver opened well and radiated feelings of serenity and easy charm in the opening prelude. He used a wide and interesting range of ornamentation and varied this in the repeats of various sections. I particularly liked the springy rhythms of the ‘corrente’ and the ‘giga’. However, I thought the phrasing was relatively uninteresting with Driver not really capturing the dance elements in some of the movements, and there were too many polished and rounded off edges, which somehow made the work lose some of its vitality.
The selection of études from Chopin and Ligeti was the highlight of the concert for me and it allowed Driver to show off his extraordinary and wide ranging technique. Driver elected to play Chopin’s second set of études from Op 25. These are poetic masterpieces which explore the full range of the technical and expressive possibilities of the piano. The opening ‘Harp’ study had a wonderful elasticity of line and the melody was framed beautifully, while the whispering figurations in the F minor etude were woven as a series of poetic arabesques. The F major and A flat études were both clean and incisive while the scherzando elements of the E minor were wonderfully characterised. The double thirds in the technically demanding G sharp minor did not perhaps glide as smoothly and effortlessly as they might but I loved the whispered opening of the piece.
The C sharp minor étude is often seen as a duet between cello and flute and Driver did a brilliant job in bringing out the autumnal warmth and getting to the heart of this emotionally charged and beautiful piece. The D flat etude in sixths had a nice sway a range of colouration, while the ‘Butterfly’ étude had the requisite springiness that it needs and a well-judged range of texture and dynamics. I really liked Driver’s performance of the double octave étude: he captured brilliantly the sense of ominous foreboding in the opening and the piece had the power that it needed without sounding too bombastic and abrasive. Driver managed to coax a marvellous range of tone colours from the swirling piano figurations of the ‘Winter Wind’ etude while the C minor étude which concludes the set was full of soaring passion and intensity.
Driver opened the second half of the recital with four of Ligeti’s études: he is clearly enthusiastic about these works which he introduced from the platform. Ligeti’s études use a wide and varied range of influences including African polyrhythms, jazz, folk music and modern harmonies and they are highly virtuosic pieces. Driver opened with ‘Arc-en-ciel’ – which owes a debt to the jazz pianists, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans – and coaxed luminous and translucent sounds from the piano. ‘Fem’ is a study in fifths which uses intricate polyrhythms and Driver did a great job maintaining the buoyancy and momentum of the piece. ‘Cordes à vide’ is one of my favourite Ligeti études and is again a study in fifths: in this work Driver successfully foreshadowed the ethereal, celestial world of Beethoven’s Op 111. The final ‘Fanfares’, which use a Bartokian ostinato, was played with brilliance and panache.
The recital concluded with Beethoven’s magnificent final piano sonata. The opening diminished sevenths were a little too polite but Driver played the ensuing ‘allegro’ in a technically assured and highly cultivated way. I felt Driver’s performance needed more weight and depth of tone and that he needed to inject more of a sense of drama and conflict into the movement. The second movement opened well with Driver using the piece to explore the expressive potential of the piano. Beethoven’s ‘boogie-woogie’ variation was played with élan and the rhythms were clean and incisive. However, the subsequent variations, where Beethoven soars into the celestial heights were less convincing and I was not persuaded that Driver really captured the feelings of divine rapture and the sense of being suspended in space. Driver is a very accomplished pianist and artist but this is a piece to which I think he could usefully return later in his career.