United Kingdom Bach, Schumann, Balakirev, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev: Danny Driver (piano), St John’s Smith Square, London, 3.11.2016. (RB)
Bach – French Suite No. 5 in G BWV816
Schumann – Études Symphoniques Op13 (without Op Posth variations)
Balakirev – Nocturne No. 2 in B minor
Rachmaninov – Selection from Études tableaux Op39
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata No. 7 in B Flat Op83
This concert formed part of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series. Danny Driver has released a number of critically acclaimed recordings for Hyperion, including music by Schumann and Balakirev. He has a remarkably wide repertoire encompassing both mainstream and lesser-known works by composers such as CPE Bach, York Bowen, and Benjamin Dale.
The first half of the recital focused on German music and opened with Bach’s fifth French Suite. There was much to admire in Driver’s performance: all the repeats were observed; the ornaments were stylish and varied and they were more elaborate and highly inventive in the repeats; there was an appreciation of Baroque period conventions; and the playing was exceptionally clear and the lines well-articulated. The dynamics were nicely calibrated although Driver used the una corda in the opening section of the Allemande which sounded a little apologetic. The Sarabande had a nice lyrical flow and, as it progressed, it seemed to radiate with Bach’s Lutheran spirituality. The whirling contrapuntal lines of the Gigue were buoyant and uplifting and they brought the work to an affirming conclusion. This was a great way to open the recital.
We moved from the 18th to the 19th Century with Schumann’s Études Symphoniques which were written in 1834 and are based on a theme sent to the composer by Baron von Fricken. Schumann published 11 variations on the theme and 5 further variations were published posthumously. Pianists sometimes include the posthumous variations in performances but Driver decided to restrict his performance to the 11 originally published variations. He was on top of the considerable technical demands and conjured up a wealth of orchestral colours in this performance. The heady Romanticism of the second variation was conveyed brilliantly and, as the set progressed, Driver brought a wonderful mixture of capriciousness, turmoil, mischievousness and heroics to the work. While there was a high level of technical polish and attention to detail, the playing sometimes felt a little contained and I wanted to hear more of the extreme mercurial contrasts in the music. I wondered also if Driver might have done more to layer the sound and create a feeling of space and contrasting tonal effects in the ruminative penultimate variation. The final variation was dispatched with virtuoso relish as Schumann’s climactic chords brought the first half of the recital to a resounding conclusion.
We moved from Germany to Russia in the second half, starting with Balakirev’s second Nocturne in B minor. I wasn’t familiar with this work before the recital but it is a glorious piece and it features some highly imaginative musical effects. Driver allowed the composer’s expressive song to ring out around the hall and the evocation of the woodwind and organ effects was masterful. The best performance of the evening was Rachmaninov’s A minor Étude tableau which saw Driver creating a mesmerising web of sound and a wonderful feeling of space. This was absolutely spellbinding playing and demonstrated why Driver’s performances have garnered such acclaim. I was less convinced by his performance of the C Minor and F Sharp Minor Études tableaux: while the playing was precise and Driver was clearly on top of the daunting technical demands it was a little dry and I would have welcomed more freedom and a greater range of colour.
The concert concluded with the second of Prokofiev’s War Sonatas. The Seventh Sonata was written in 1942 and first performed by Sviatoslav Richter on 18 January 1943. Richter famously learned the sonata in four days and his performance established the piece as one of the great piano works of the 20th Century. I enjoyed Driver’s performance of the opening movement, marked Allegro inquieto, where he brought out the spikiness and angularity of the music. There was excellent shaping of the phrases and the stomping black humour and sarcasm were fully on display. The slower sections of the movement were admirably clear although I would have liked Driver to have brought greater depth to the composer’s contemplative musings. The Andante caloroso second movement was a terrific piece of playing with Driver bringing warmth tinged with sadness to the outer sections whilst allowing the central section to disintegrate in a compelling way. The final Precipitato contained some illuminating tonal shocks and striking contrasts and it had a rugged primal energy. However, the tempo was too slow for my taste and it did not quite take off in the way this music can.
Overall, there was some very fine playing from Danny Driver throughout the recital. The performance was greeted with enthusiastic applause from the audience and Driver returned to the stage one final time to perform the Allemande from Bach’s C Minor French Suite as an encore.