On October 15, I reviewed a Wigmore Hall recital by Danny Driver which ended with a fine account of Schumann’s C major Fantasy. In praising his performance, I made the point that Driver possesses a high degree of imagination and a sensitive range of touch, ideal qualities for performing Schumann. At the time, I had no idea this Hyperion recording by him was in the offing. I find my expectations have not been misplaced.
The repertoire on this release is in some ways quite daring in that neither of these sets of pieces is as well-known as it should be: Schumann regarded his Novelletten as being among his best works, and in total playing-time, of around 50 minutes, this is the largest of Schumann’s cycles for piano and places great demands on the performer.
In every regard, Driver proves to be an ideal interpreter of Schumann. His technique is exemplary, and his feeling for the emerging Romanticism of Schumann’s music is impressive. Indeed, performances such as these – few and far between though they be – do much to raise the stature of this often misjudged great and original composer, in the light of the Novelletten having been written just ten years after Beethoven’s death as demonstrably expressive developments of Schubert’s late piano music (some of it dedicated posthumously to Schumann by a grateful publisher).
Among Driver’s qualities is that he does not sentimentalise the music, conveying just the right amount of expression, allied to clarity of detail and most musicianly phrasing. In many ways, therefore, he brings out all there is to find in this delicately sympathetic music – but not so delicate as to abjure power and strength where needed. He achieves this especially, perhaps, in the opening movement, where the overall tonal basis of D major is firmly established, and in Driver’s account of the bold opening paragraph of the second movement, where he almost instinctively seems to do the right thing. Indeed, throughout, there is absolutely nothing at all to criticise: poetic and compelling by turns, this is compelling playing, cleanly pedalled, and full of infinite gradations of tone.
The Novelletten are character-pieces, not technical studies: in the Fourth, we are in a kind of ballroom that verges not so much on the wild as on the flamboyant; Driver is admirable here, and in the relatively scaled-down Fifth his grasp of the nature of the music is total. Schumann reserves the most challenging piece until last, but Driver is more than its equal, making the myriad sectionalised construction flow with impressive unity and inevitability. It would surely be impossible to imagine finer accounts than these,
In the Nachtstücke, Driver continues to show himself as the perfect Schumannian, the music being rhythmically well held together and revealed with much sensitivity of touch and natural phrasing, displaying all of the composer’s fanciful invention. And in the F sharp major Romanze, the inherent difficulty of phrasing the finest melody ever written for the thumbs is surmounted with ease. Add to the excellence a recording quality which is perfectly balanced and the result is a truly outstanding disc of great music that for no good reason is relatively little heard.