British Pianist Danny Driver — A Magical tour of Debussy & Ligeti

Returning here after an absence of 18 years, British super-pianist Danny Driver, now in his early 40’s delivered a commanding performance, seated at the ultra expressive Yamaha CFX concert grand at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz on March 19. This event concluded the 2016-17 Distinguished Artists Series season. In April 1999 he had superbly performed a conventional program of Chopin, Scriabin and Ravel on the seven-foot Steinway at St. Andrew’s Church in Aptos, also for DACLS. What we heard on this occasion was a totally unexpected, but very successful, layering of familiar early 20th century Debussy (1862-1918) impressionistic works with selections from Gyorgy Ligeti’s (1923-2006) amazing and almost overwhelming “Etudes” from the mid-1980’s to early “90”s, even more “transcendental” than all those of Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Debussy put together. No wonder they are “cult” favorites for young, hotshot competition contestants. But Danny Driver was not showing off when, with DACLS Director John Orlando intently watching the scores as page turner, he sat lean and electric, using knowledge gained through his Cambridge degree in physiology as he sometimes reached the very depths of the bass with his left hand and the uppermost keys with his right.

Driver opened with Debussy’s familiar “Reflections in the Water,” (avant-garde when published in 1905), using a light clean touch with artistic pedaling that seemed to suggest Monet’s gardens at Giverny — with sunlight shimmering over the ponds from dawn to dusk in washes of color. Then came a set of four Ligeti “Etudes,” still fresh and unusual after 30 years; unlike the new Impressionism, Expressionism, avant-garde. Because Ligeti is outside any movement to change the direction of musical composition, he will always be unique. In these works we heard a true musical universalism, with flashes of Balkan folk tunes (like Bartok and Kodaly), Chopin, old counterpoint, and what Driver calls “fake gamelan sounds.” The local late, great composer Lou Harrison would have loved this recital because of Ligeti’s easy, often-hypnotic accessibility. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” that ended the set gave Driver a fine chance to demonstrate just how much control is needed to create with humor a character that is off kilter.

Debussy’s Homage à Rameau contrasted a sad, stately sarabande given an extremely subtle and delicate reading, and was very successfully followed by the martial Ligeti “Fanfares,” his “Rainbow of many colors,” and the terribly funny “Infinite Column,” a soundscape that seems stuck in space while trying to rise. In the following, familiar Debussy Mouvement we were given a very smooth, fast, and “purposeful” ride by Driver.

During intermission, the appreciative audience was abuzz about Ligeti, unfamiliar to most of us, and hoping that Danny Driver will record him. Incidentally, Ligeti’s 1961 chamber work “Atmospheres” was used a few years later in Kubrick’s great film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and became internationally famous.

Driver states in his own notes on this composer that while some of the “Etudes” take traditional techniques to a new extreme, this “new virtuosity” has to do with complex textures, and a matter of “brain-splitting” rather than finger breaking per se. So in the next set, “Disorder” white keys are only in the right hand and black in the left: and in “Blocked Keys” Driver’s fingers magically played one hand on keys held down by the other, as well as “free” keys, creating a mesmerizing stutter-along sounds.

A perfect contrast was the Debussy “Bells Though the Leaves,” which Driver coveyed as a ringing of sometimes clear but often muffled and diffused sounds, shimmering splendidly from the fine Yamaha CFX, raved over by all who have played it. Ligeti’s “Autumn in Warsaw” starts out almost sounding like Debussy, then continues without an “expected” structure and becomes a tightly-controlled chaos organized of a Baroque lament descending polyphonically at different speeds with up to five versions of the theme sounding simultaneously.

Debussy’s 1907 “And the Moon Descends over the Ruined Temple” recalls his earlier “Reflections,” but now it’s night and the moon glow very light and clear, under Driver’s hands a huge pastel wash of colors fading out to a pianissimo. While this was the last work on the printed program, Danny Driver surprised us with a big “encore” via Ligeti’s “ Devil’s Staircase,” composed near Santa Barbara years after he had fled Communist Hungary for Vienna in 1956. This difficult climb based on mathematical divisions seems like “playing without movement” at times, with some scampering. Whammo! A fff final chord long held, then just one of its notes, held without pedal until the sound became inaudible, probably around 45 seconds…

Despite the unfamiliar Ligeti, the audience clamored for more because everything sounded new, different, and exciting. Adding to the excitement was the layering with familiar Debussy in a superb and intense experience thanks to pianist Driver and his “new ride.” We hope he will return again someday to DACLS, as so many musicians have done over the years. Speaking of which, program of next year’s series on October 1 will feature the “Tempest” Trio, whose pianist Alon Goldstein and cellist Amit Peled are already local favorites heard separately many times; adding their violinist Ilya Kaler should create an ensemble of the highest order.

Distinguished Artists Series Director John Orlando continues to bring us world-class musicians for the 33rd season coming up. A small donation to help reduce the $38,000 balance on the Yamaha CFX, a world-class piano we all enjoy so much would be gratefully received.


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