Danny Driver may be the best pianist you’ve never heard. The British native, now in his early 40s, is one of the world-class artists who record for the prestigious UK record company Hyperion along with Marc-André Hamelin, Stephen Hough and Angela Hewitt among others.
Driver’s decade-long relationship with Hyperion Records has yielded a wide-ranging discography of works by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Handel, York Bowen, Benjamin Dale, Mili Balakirev, Robert Schumann and Erik Chisholm. Of his first volume of CPE Bach Sonatas, Bryce Morrison wrote in Gramophone: “It would be impossible to overestimate Driver’s impeccable technique and musicianship … his is one of the finest of all recent keyboard issues.” His most recent release, cited by The New York Times as one of 2017’s Best Classical Recordings, featured piano concertos by Amy Beach, Dorothy Howell and Cécile Chaminade. On March 5, he makes a welcome return to the Jane Mallett Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre under the auspices of Music Toronto. The following afternoon he gives a masterclass at U of T’s Edward Johnson Building, something he also did on his last visit here, two years ago. His empathetic interchanges with the students and musical insights were impressive then and promise to be equally memorable March 6.
In a revealing eight-minute video available on Facebook and posted on his website, Driver talked about why Sviatoslav Richter headed a list of pianists he loved – “because of his meticulous attention to detail and his refusal to compromise” – and spoke about being the product of many different influences including science (which he studied at Cambridge University). “In a sense everything is connected,” he said. “Part of the excitement and the danger of musical performance is [that] ultimately I don’t come to it with really strongly conceived notions. Principles yes, but there’s so much that can happen, that might happen. It’s very difficult to explain where that comes from.”
The WholeNote celebrates this singular pianist’s upcoming recital with the following mid-January 2019 conversation.
WN: What are your first memories of playing the piano?
DD: At school, I watched my schoolmates playing simple pieces on the piano in front of the class and decided that I too wanted to have a go. The first time I played in front of my peers I used only my left and right thumbs (on middle C and middle B respectively)… fortunately for my audiences things have moved forward somewhat since.
Please describe the musical atmosphere in your home growing up.
I was encouraged to develop my musical skills (I also played the clarinet and French horn, and composed) but not to the exclusion of other things. Growing up I had a range of interests, including languages, science and sport. This breadth helped me to understand the way music draws upon and reflects our lives, even at an early age.
Who was the first composer you fell in love with as a child?
Definitely Chopin! I fell in love with Dinu Lipatti’s classic 1950 recording of Chopin’s Waltzes, and remember trying to emulate him in several of those pieces (unsuccessfully I might add). Even though my repertoire these days is not necessarily focused on Romanticism, I am still very attached to Chopin’s music.
Where do you find artistic inspiration?
If I knew the answer then inspiration would be constantly available and thus ultimately non-existent; special moments often arise when you least expect them, even while contemplating seemingly mundane objects or activities. I enjoy reading widely and engaging with a range of art forms, as well as reflecting on my artistic practice and its relation to the world around me. Teaching younger artists and playing chamber music with colleagues are also essential.
Please tell us how you approach each piece on the Music Toronto program. What is it about CPE Bach’s Fantasie in F-sharp Minor that speaks to you?
CPE Bach was a true musical game-changer, “exploding” traditional Baroque idioms in a mercurial style driven by contrast of character and emotion. The Baroque counterpoint of musical line and its relationship to the classical art of rhetoric is replaced by a counterpoint of musical idea and a poetic outlook. There’s something liberating and improvisatory about playing this typically quirky Fantasia, which often veers angularly from one harmony to another in ways that echo sublime poetry, foreshadow Romanticism, and shatter any lazy notions we might have about 18th-century convention. This music reminds me that despite the implicit specificity of musical notation, we are dealing with open texts. Perhaps this is why my time recording CPE Bach’s keyboard music some years ago was such a happy one.
What fascinates you about Schumann’s Kreisleriana?
The second record I owned as a child (after Lipatti’s Waltzes that is) was Martha Argerich’s recording of Schumann’s Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana, and I remember the opening of Kreisleriana making a particularly strong impression on me. Much later I read ETA Hoffmann’s collection Kreisleriana, which provides a fascinating if often sarcastic and comical view of the fictional young 19th-century Kapellmeister Kreisler. I have often enjoyed pondering how this literary work (and indeed others by Hoffmann) might have inspired Schumann’s composition, which for all its rhapsodic surface feels and sounds completely organic to me.
What drew you to Kaija Saariaho’s Ballade?
I was beguiled by its darkness and brooding. It seems to conjure up a dimly lit space of great emotional intensity, even over its relatively short duration.
What are some of the challenges of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin?
Everything here is much more difficult to produce than it sounds! The florid passagework, complex harmony and Ravel’s typical “overlaying of the hands” all have their technical challenges. The Toccata finale is probably more difficult for me than Scarbo from Gaspard de la Nuit – whereas the latter has the possibility of rich, quasi-romantic sonority and copious resonance to facilitate the pianistic acrobatics, the Toccata needs a meticulous clarity, great lightness, and an almost crystalline quality. All the while there needs to be an elegance and decorative refinement characteristic of the French Baroque.
And of Medtner’s Sonata No.9 in A Minor?
Medtner was a master of form and through-composition (taking Beethoven as his inspiration); Rachmaninoff thought of him as the greatest living composer of his day. This Sonata is perfectly crafted, as one might expect, but for all its tumult and angularity, it ends somewhat inconclusively. The music is tonal, formally concise, but nevertheless open-ended, tricky to bring off. I feel as though it leaves us with more questions than answers – it is a challenge to performer and listener alike.
What do you find most rewarding and challenging in your professional life?
I demand a lot of myself as a performer, and rarely feel as though I have achieved what I set out to achieve artistically. When I feel I have come close, it’s an intensely rewarding experience. Sometimes the challenge of particular repertoire proves addictive: I have been performing Ligeti’s Piano Études for a number of years and am due to record them later in 2019. They are without doubt the most difficult piano pieces I have ever worked on (more so than Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata), and there’s a thrill to practising them even if the process is painstaking and requires great patience and perseverance.
I’m intrigued by the fact that through your mother you are a direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. Music and dance are so ingrained in the Hasidic spirit, what part, if any, does that lineage play in your musical life?
My Jewish heritage is very important to me, and certainly my love of nature and of music seem to chime very well with the Baal Shem Tov’s ethos. But I also have “musical genes” from my father’s side (his grandfather was apparently a very fine amateur pianist). It’s hard for me to dissect what comes from where.
Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.