Danny Driver has been making quite a reputation for himself through his recordings (for which profound gratitude to Hyperion, is due) of music by Balakirev, C. P. E. Bach, Benjamin Dale and York Bowen – his Bowen CDs, in particular, have been a revelation. But, however acclaimed his recordings, the intensity and immediacy of this Wigmore Hall recital was something else – and more than justified the accumulating fuss being made of this fine musician.
The C. P. E. Bach Sonata, in the fiery prototype classical style from the generation before Haydn, was an adventure playground of rapid-response wit, astonishing changes of direction and harmonic and structural dislocation. Driver revelled in the sheer virtuosity of the writing and, like a juggler coping with any number of slippery bars of soap, he kept the whole highly-wrought creation airborne with incredible precision and an attractive, insouciant glee. This work was written ten years before Johann Sebastian’s death – no wonder the god of the high baroque was referred to as “old Bach”.
The element of fantasy continued in Schumann’s Symphonic Studies. Each study/variation (Driver choosing to exclude the posthumous sections) was saturated with character and an acute awareness of the piano’s tonal and technical possibilities, in the sort of processional style so beloved of Schumann and delivered by Driver with jaw-dropping security and gravitas. But what clinched his epic performance was the convulsive impact of the finale, in which practical virtuosity went hand-in-hand with visionary romanticism at its grandest. Driver was every bit as masterly in the more muted colours and layers of Debussy’s Images, the poise, breadth and quietly objective joy of ‘Cloches’ a long way from the barnstorming Schumann, but just as visionary.
In the early 1980s, when I was a student, to express a positive interest in the music of Gerald Finzi or York Bowen was akin to admitting to being a Thatcher supporter in Hampstead. Even further away from the rectitude of pure contemporary music was the Impromptu by Benjamin Dale (1885-1943), whose music had more than a toe in the rhapsodic style familiar from romantic British films of the period, with a few surprising hooks to reel you deeper in. Bowen’s Sonata (he and Dale were close friends) was in another league, though – passionate, virtuosic music, with a specific ear for the piano, and the style – Brahms, Liszt, Rachmaninov – thoroughly assimilated into an interesting and discernibly English voice, and played brilliantly.
Driver’s performing style, while thoroughly virtuosic, is of emphasised control and with economy of means – no gesture is wasted; and to watch him play is to become instantly aware of a high intelligence and total connection with the music. It’s the sort of playing, finely balanced between analytical and emotional, that compels you to listen. I wonder if his encore, the first of Chopin’s Opus 25 Etudes, is a foretaste of things to come. I’d cross many roads to hear him play both sets.