I've never seen a man look so calm before tackling such a demanding programme. Danny Driver came across as very personable when offering the Holy Trinity Church audience a little background to this programme of intertwined Ligeti Études and Debussy Images. Although all six Études of Ligeti's 1985 Book 1 and eight from Book 2 (1988-94) were present, they were reordered to enhance dramatic programming and to offset Debussy's interleaving Images.
“Touche bloquées” (Blocked Keys) featured an interesting compositional/technical idea, which must have taken some getting used to: the left hand depresses some notes and the corresponding strings resonate sympathetically when the right plays related notes. However, the right hand also strike some of these held notes resulting in the surely counterintuitive situation of regular rhythmic groupings producing irregular, attention-grabbing, rhythms. As if this weren't enough, the left hand also has additional notes to play. Throughout all this technical wizardry, Driver never once looked under pressure; in fact, he seemed very much to be enjoying himself. Ligeti's Études feature a tremendous amount of hand-crossing and I could have sworn that in the “Coloana infinită” (named for Brâncuși's “Infinite Column” sculpture), Driver changed his mind about crossing-over-or-under which, at that tempo, suggests wonderful processing power.
Steinway would be delighted that no key of the piano went untouched. Both extremes received thunderous action in the Études, two of which ended with the impression that the player had fallen off the end: “Automne à Varsovie” (Autumn in Warsaw) at the lower end and “Coloana infinită” the upper. During “Vertige” (Dizziness), the music drove off the upper end of the keyboard only to resume at the lower, almost as if Ligeti perceived the keyboard as a circle.
Descriptions of fiery programmes can create the impression that it's all about speed and ferocious attack, so I should stress here that Driver's control of dynamics was very impressive. There were many subito piano moments where crashing volume was followed by sudden quiet, somehow without losing energy or excitement. The closing item, the electrifying “L'escalier du diable”, furnished fine examples of this, along with one other intriguing acoustical phenomenon: the pianist is instructed to lift the pedals very slowly as the final chord lingers and we could hear one note begin to zing sitar-like during the decaying notes' diminishing dialogue.
Driver's delicate touch shone in two of the more reflective Études: “Galamb Borong” which, despite translating from the Hungarian as 'melancholic pigeon', nods to the gamelan influence at its source. This ear for the oriental, and an ability to recreate it on western keyboard links Ligeti and Debussy. In the latter's “Cloches à travers les feuilles” (which Ligeti cites as a well-masked model for “Galamb Borong”) the eponymous bells seem less those of French country churches than eastern temples. Driver's touch was exquisite here as it was in Debussy's “Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut” (And the moon descends on the temple that used to be).
As Lammermuir Co-Artistic Director (and courageous turner of triple-stave Ligeti pages) Hugh Macdonald pointed out in his fine programme notes, Debussy is perhaps too readily associated with impressionist painting, but there was no mistaking the visual component in “Poissons d'or” (Goldfish). Had one not seen the title, the notion of darting movement and light would have been unmistakable – excellently captured by Debussy and wonderfully conveyed here by Driver. His liquid touch opened the programme with Debussy's “Reflets dans l'eau” (Reflections in the water). Although many of the aforementioned technical details demand a curved hand position, I was struck here by the almost Horowitzian flatness of Driver's right-hand position, which, in the context of the piece, reminded me of water striders.
Miraculously, Driver appeared as relaxed at the end of this stupendous afternoon's playing as he had before beginning. Having mentioned Ligeti's assertion that playing the piano should be a physical pleasure he had certainly embodied that belief throughout this wonderfully conceived and stunningly executed programme. This was the most life-affirming concert I've attended in a long time.
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