Review: Danny Driver at the Menuhin Room

Danny Driver, Menuhin Room, Portsmouth, July 1

A few weeks ago on the wireless Danny Driver was described as a ‘cerebral’ pianist and soon after, as if to prove the point, was the guest on Composer of the Week talking about the music of Gyorgy Ligeti. Some of that in the Menuhin Room might well have been an education in itself but the Goldberg Variations are more approachable. In the same way that Ben Nevis is approachable, being a ‘mountain to climb’ but offering stupendous views on the way and especially from the top.

My limited idea of cerebral thinking about Bach’s keyboard music, and these variations, is to place interpretations on a scale that goes from metronomically uniform at one end to jazzy improvisation at the other. For my homework, I have discs of Trevor Pinnock on harpsichord, the Amati String Trio and Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording. Gould might not be the ideal place to start with his adventurous approach to tempi and surely taking much of the piece like a short ride in a fast machine and over emphasizing the contrasts, which is not to say that Bach wouldn’t have found it ‘interesting’. 

E.M. Forster advised that we Only Connect the prose and the passion. He might have said the form and the content, the discipline and the expression. Danny took roughly 70 minutes to play these 30 variations whereas the Gould recording clocks in at 38.32 and even then he was taking on some passages at rapid tempi but no art is done any favours by being made an Olympic sport.

The Aria faltered carefully forwards on the radiant Steinway which Danny later described as ‘lively’ but that only served to belie the merry-making, busy bass lines, military precision and intricate crossing of hands that were to follow.

There are all moods and tempers to be conjured from the shifts most often marked by a turning of the page. A stridently affirmative canon preceded the cool shade of the minor key with a crepuscular left hand and then an exuberant wild sheep chase with trills at both ends of the scale.

At 45 minutes, as with the Diabelli here four weeks ago, one was struck how such a composer is like a dog with a bone, relentlessly finding more when many would have thought they had done enough. I’d have put more of the pensive, even fearful, tentative pieces in but Bach needs advice on composition from me as much as Shakespeare needed a creative writing tutorial. The ‘quodlibet’ finale is a tour de force as if to say we hadn’t seen anything yet in the first hour. It was chaos somehow kept under control, so it wasn’t chaos, actually, but an artist’s impresssion of it. Affirmative and joyous, we were returned back to the elegant, poignant safety of the Aria in reprise. 

It’s a knowledgeable audience the Menuhin Room series gets and they know better than to crash in with applause immediately. Those few moments of quiet before they pay tribute not only lets such an event sink in a fraction but is also respectful. However, standing is infectious. I think the first to do so does so almost instinctively and it soon catches on. I’m not a big one for doing so but occasionally I have to agree. I don’t dish such ovations out like confetti and it’s a year and a half since Angelina Kopyrina qualified for one of mine but what can you do. I was part of a significant proportion of those that joined in.

I had time to fill before a further engagement and so waited on along with a healthy number of others, to whom it would have been much more practical use, for the masterclass. First up was Andrew McVittie with a slow Scarlatti Sonata. The thought that such musicians put into their playing is remarkable. It’s not for them the devil-may-care life of the poet who thinks of a good line and sticks it in. Danny worked on a piece he’d never seen before with Andrew, took some emphasis in the left hand out of the foreground, introduced a bit more mystery, tried it without pedals to see what effect the pedals were having. It was exciting to see it happen, and a privilege. 

The most pertinent point to be made, though, was that having put the piece ‘in the box’, that is, having established one’s approach to it, it’s then a good idea to take it out again. It’s absolutely that. It’s madness to think a first draft is the best one can do. Andrew got his well-deserved money’s worth and time was pressing on. I missed further excursions into Gershwin and Albeniz because I had somewhere to get to and so I left the expensive, so delicate, piano to its next encounters and sailed calmly off. 

David Green

And another review:

Bach’s Goldberg variations are a pianistic Everest and Danny Driver performed them with dazzling panache in the Menuhin Room’s Saturday lunchtime recital.

Expectations were high, as he is a pianist renowned for his breadth, vision and virtuosity and we felt honoured to be the recipients of his first public performance of this masterpiece. Yet there was no element of experiment or indecision; he played as if this work had been part of his musical make-up since birth.

As I left, I tried to analyse why I felt not only excited and moved, but musically satisfied. I concluded that he was not only enjoying himself, but was determined we would share his love of the work. His wide-ranging dynamics encompassed a telling pianissimo to forthright and even deliberately aggressive fortissimo, which some audience members might have found overwhelming, for at times the Steinway’s explosive, percussive jangling appropriately resembled the sound of the big concert-sized harpsichords of Bach’s time.

He maintained an overlying stable pulse ratio, however different the tempo of individual variations. Rhythms were punched out with relish in the faster dance-like variations, yet we always sensed the underlying heartbeat of slower variations, however richly ornamented. In fact, this lightness and control of ornamentation were amongst the most attractive elements of Danny’s playing.

Throughout he ensured that his audience registered the most important lines in all Bach’s contrapuntal complexity and the nine canonic variations were expertly negotiated and clarified. Control of voicing was always well-considered, often revealing hidden beauties.

His level of virtuosity in the faster variations was astonishing – finger speed, lightening hand-crossing, contrapuntal complexity all held us spellbound, yet digital dexterity, however exuberant, never became mere showmanship, because of Danny’s firm intellectual grasp of form, and balance. But for me, the glowing cantabile of the slower variations, in particular the elegiac 25th variation, was the most memorable aspect of this exceptional performance.

Though the Goldberg lasts about an hour depending on how many of the repeats are played (Danny omitted some), our attention did not stray; however demanding a masterpiece may be, if a fine pianist is fully in command with a receptive audience, time does not exist.

After a short break, Danny gave a particularly valuable master class. A lyrical Scarlatti sonata was played with beguiling affection by our organiser Andrew McVittie, followed by a rip-roaring final section of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in its piano duet version from Helen Morris and Kate Burrows; the final performance was an enticing Albeniz piece from his Iberia Suite by Ashton Gray. All were polished performances already, so that Danny could give advanced and illuminative help.

The Scarlatti was moved into a slightly more flowing tempo and some harmonic subtleties highlighted. In the Gershwin, there was some useful ensemble help in breathing together, trying alternative pedalling and making sure that the actual sound quality of the players matched. Again pedal was discussed in the Albeniz plus the subtleties of managing different shades of pianissimo. All participants were obviously inspired by their discussions with Danny whose attitude throughout was friendly helpful and practical.

Portsmouth music lovers who have not yet attended these concerts are missing something really exceptional. Yesterday’s audience members must spread the word to all classically inclined listeners. There is nothing to supplant live music and it’s here at the Menuhin Room. The next Menuhin concert is a recital and master-class by local pianist Valentina Seferinova on September 9th at 12.30pm.

Diana Swann

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