Balakirev’s ‘Oriental fantasy’ Islamey is probably his
best-known piano piece, and hearing Freddy Kempf play it – review
- reminds me just how different it is to anything written by
other members of the ‘Five’. While the Piano Sonata No. 2
lacks the overt exoticism of Islamey one could be forgiven
for thinking it was cast from a Lisztian mould. Indeed, all
the works recorded here look west of the Urals for their inspiration
– to Chopin in particular. But whatever their origins or leanings,
these bravura pieces demand fearless interpreters. Given that
the British-born pianist Danny Driver has only recorded C.P.E.
Bach and York Bowen thus far, one might wonder whether he’s
an obvious choice for late Romantic Russian repertoire.
All doubts evaporate minutes into the sonata. The measured,
quasi-baroque flavour of the opening statement is light years
away from the free-flowing, rhapsodic pianism one might expect
from such a work. But there’s magic in the air, and Balakirev
transforms this austere theme into music of real feeling and
rare delight. Driver brings warmth and spontaneity to every
bar. The subtleties of phrasing and colour are faithfully caught
in this lovely, mellow recording. As so often with Hyperion’s
piano discs, perspectives are very natural, and there are no
sonic nasties at either end of the audio spectrum.
The second movement – a mazurka adapted from an early sonata
– is no less appealing. Once again that formal opening gives
way to music – and playing – of disarming brilliance. That’s
not as paradoxical as it sounds, for restraint in music that
lends itself to self-aggrandisement is most welcome, especially
when there are so many details to be unearthed along the way.
That’s certainly true of the Intermezzo, where Driver’s burbling
rhythms and judicious control of dynamics are very impressive
indeed. Even in the mercurial writing of the Allegro, he balances
virtuosity with vision, a talent that’s all too rare in a field
where technique is often worshipped to the exclusion of all
The B minor Nocturne begins with that deceptive – but
now familiar – air of simplicity, before modulating into something
altogether more virile. Yes, comparison with Chopin is inevitable,
but behind this muscular music beats a gentle heart, a duality
that Driver brings out most beautifully. The two mazurkas that
follow are just as vigorous – what clarity and precision – but
in the second Driver digs deep and finds an extra degree of
inwardness, of melancholy, that is very special. Indeed, it’s
that ability to articulate these inner tensions that makes this
such a rewarding recital, adding substance to music that some
might dismiss as lightweight or just plain derivative.
The coruscating Valse-Caprice should silence such criticism;
true, it’s more overtly virtuosic than anything we’ve heard
thus far, but Driver rises to the occasion with playing of controlled
passion and power. Even here he finds humanity and warmth behind
the cascade of notes. The B flat major Waltz is no less
accomplished and those hesitant rhythms are wittily done. Really,
Hyperion have done a sterling job with this recording; there’s
no unwelcome glare or hardness in the effervescent treble or
loss of focus in the weighty bass.
The Lark – based on a song by Glinka – is sketched with
the lightest of strokes, Driver sounding wonderfully refined
throughout. This captivating piece makes the strongest possible
contrast with the Scherzo and Polka that follow.
Now this really is unbridled virtuosity but, as always,
Driver has enough of a grip on the reins to ensure brisk – but
orderly – progress. In his excellent liner-notes David Fanning
likens the final Polka – en passant at least –
to Gottschalk’s Le bananier. Intrigued I took down my
copy of the relevant Philip Martin CD – Hyperion CDA66459 –
and I must agree. Incidentally, inquisitive pianophiles would
do well to investigate that excellent series, which is also
very well played and recorded.
I haven’t enjoyed a piano recording this much since Marc-André
Hamelin’s 12 Études in all the minor keys – review
– which made it onto my shortlist of picks for 2010. It’s clear
from this collection that Danny Driver is a pianist of exceptional
skill and promise. Indeed, I look forward to any future collaborations
with Hyperion, whose fine piano recordings make them an ideal
fit for an artist of this calibre.