The German Romantic writer Jean Paul called music “the moonlight in the gloomy night of life.” Yet, if life stretches over one gloomy night, then some hours are decidedly darker than others. One such example was the night of the 2022 midterm election results with its ferociously fought and tightly won races.
Amid the chaos of Nov. 8, British pianist Danny Driver delivered the healing balm of music to anxious audience members with his immersive and ethereal program, marking a promising debut recital with San Francisco Performances.
Ripe with the Romantics, Driver’s performance relished expressionism and sentimentality. He constructed the recital around two interconnected works: Gabriel Fauré’s “Theme and Variations” in C-sharp minor and Robert Schumann’s “Symphonic Studies,” the former of which carried a mirror-like resemblance to the latter. In a crisp navy suit, the pianist opened the night with Fauré.
Driver’s style of playing was like polyphony on the theme of water. His initial stiffness at the bench thawed by the second piece, as if he had scooped a slug of warm water directly from a faucet. Save for a few flashes of icy reservation, his fingers darted across keys like skipping rocks that transformed into a new splashing spectacle before they could sink. The intensity with which he layered musical phrases and spun melodies in César Franck’s “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” grew like the Coriolis effect put to music.
Driver’s unflappable technique was unmissable in his intricate ornamentations, especially his arpeggios, which scintillated every piece. Broken chords buoyed with the lightness and glimmer of gossamer. In Fauré’s barcarolle in A-flat major, his right hand sang with crystalline clarity and unabashed glee. His keen attention to dynamics shaped lyrical passages with translucent allure and the incandescence of watercolor.
Driver was conservative in leonine flourishes. His selection of difficult, expressive pieces unfurled without the clots of indulgence. Instead, he seemed far more intrigued by quiet passages, such as those in Franck’s “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” and later Maurice Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’Océan.” These moments shimmered with taut yet gentle brillo, as if Driver alone knew the piece’s unassuming alcove concealed a resplendent vision ahead. After a blistering set of descending runs, “Prelude, Chorale and Fugue” culminated into a fluttering explosion reminiscent of a hoard of butterflies.
After intermission, Driver stuck with French composers and moved to a pair of Lili Boulanger pieces, “D’un Vieux Jardin” and “D’un Jardin Chair.” Driver elusively waded through Boulanger’s silvery pools of unexpected harmonies. While he played beautifully, the twin pieces were comparatively forgettable in the program, swept under the liquid blankets of Ravel’s “Une barque sur l’Océan.”
The famous ode to a boat on the ocean played remarkably to Driver’s strengths as a pianist. “Une barque sur l’Océan” is characterized by fluidity and the evocation of water. Across its 140 measures, the piece changes time signature 36 times. Time moved with the fickle tides of the ocean. Driver captured Ravel’s essence of elusiveness and ambiguity, yet his voicing rang out with incredible definition and artistry. The crashing climax thundered with oceanic unpredictability, and Driver’s sound rang out, magnetic and voracious.
Though his astonishing rendition of Ravel made tsunamic waves, Driver carefully saved his most captivating piece for last. Slithering through the venomous beginning, Driver sunk his hands into Schumann’s “Symphonic Studies,” tucking the invested audience into the sidecar of his journey. Driver stayed close to the keys, wrestling with difficult runs and rolled chords. His careful articulation and technique unlocked a meticulous spectrum of dynamic levels, and his dexterous use of the pedal preserved the note-heavy songs’ integrity.
In his SF Performances debut, Driver delivered a night of rigorous, imaginative music. His taste for the Romantics was refreshing rather than derivative. His approach to interpretation is akin to gold panning, sifting through foot-stained and familiar melodies to unearth hidden gems.