Mili BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor (1900-1905) [25:55]
Nocturne No. 2 in B minor (1901) [7:02]
Mazurka No. 1 in A flat major (1861/1884) [4:14]
Mazurka No. 2 in C sharp minor (1864/1881) [2:54]
Valse-Caprice No. 2 in D flat major, after Alexander Taneyev (undated) [6:11]
Waltz No. 4 in B flat major (1902) [6:17]
The Lark, after Mikhail Glinka (1864) [5:39]
Scherzo No. 1 in B minor (1856) [7:22]
Polka in F sharp minor (1859) [3:33]
Danny Driver (piano)
rec. March 2010, Henry Wood Hall, London, UK
HYPERION CDA67806 [69:07]

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 else.

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 keysreview – 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.

Dan Morgan

A pianist of exceptional skill and promise.