Danny Driver’s Impressive, Humane Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms: Danny Driver (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Mario Venzago (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 23.5.2017. (AS)

Schubert – Symphony No.8 in B minor D759, ‘Unfinished’
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.4 in G Op.58
Brahms – Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

The reputation of the British pianist Danny Driver has been steadily rising in recent years, and he is now quite rightly regarded as one of the finest players in the UK. Before his performance he delivered a short, moving and uplifting tribute to those who had died and been injured in the previous day’s Manchester terrorist attack, and he dedicated his performance to those who had been affected by the terrible incident.

There is never anything ostensibly showy about Driver’s playing, though he has a formidable technique at his disposal. His was an ultra-sensitive, classically restrained yet highly expressive response to the first movement’s opening mood of serenity, with superb articulation and a lovely tone quality. As the emotion of the music deepened, so did Driver’s range of expression expand, though in the most natural, sympathetic manner. He performed an unfamiliar cadenza which proved to be the seldom played second version written by the composer himself.

The dialogue at the beginning of the Andante, with its emphatic orchestral statements and quiet responses from the soloist, was effectively contrived by Driver and his conductor, and the prevailing mood of hushed concentration was finely sustained throughout this short, central movement. Then we heard an account of the finale that had an attractive buoyancy yet possessed a magisterial, warmly expressive, very humane quality. It was a characteristic that perfectly matched the poignant circumstances of the performance.

At the beginning of the concert we had heard a performance of the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony that was unusual, to say the least. From the outset Venzago drove the music hard at quite a fast pace. The music’s natural warmth and poetry was suppressed in favour of imposed drama and urgency. Then, before the second subject, Venzago slowed the music to a crawl before bursting forth once again. And so the movement continued, with most of the music propelled against its natural ebb and flow, but with some passages occasionally slowed down or even briefly paused, unnaturally and excessively. The second movement was also hurried along in a no nonsense fashion. Fortunately Venzago did allow the solo passages from clarinet and oboe to be expressed with natural fluency, and there were expressive devices elsewhere, but these were usually in the wrong places.

One feared that the Fourth Symphony of Brahms would receive similar treatment, but this was not at all so. If the opening of the work seemed a trifle brisk things soon settled down and we heard a very satisfying, well-balanced, well-argued and naturally flowing account of the first movement. Here and elsewhere the orchestra played well, but the Cadogan Hall’s limited stage capacity compels there to be a slightly reduced body of strings, and the brass section tended to be over prominent in the sound picture. Rather unfairly, perhaps, this imbalance also exposed a certain raw quality of timbre on the part of the horns in particular.

Again, the second movement seemed to open a little quickly, but the basic pulse proved to be very satisfying. Phrasing was ideally consistent with the flow of the music, and there were passages of real beauty. The scherzo-like third movement was played with a good deal of appropriately bluff vigour, and the last movement passacaglia was well-managed. Here it is difficult for the conductor to maintain a strong sense of line, yet bring individual character to each variation. Not only did Venzago achieve this, but he delivered a coda in which cumulative tension was released in a particularly well-judged manner and to exciting effect.

Alan Sanders

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