When I last saw Danny Driver, I was seventeen, and he was teaching me composition at London’s Junior Academy of Music. Now he’s a world famous pianist. “I was always slightly mystified as to why I was teaching composition, given that I was never really a composer”, he laughs, when we speak again after a gap of fifteen years. “I guess it was because I’ve always had a fascination with musical structure”.
That fascination will serve him well later this month, when he takes on what he calls “a marvel of construction”. That’s Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto which Driver is set to perform with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in Aylesbury, Hull and London’s Cadogan Hall. “It’s full of extraordinary features,” he says, “the mystical, transcendent opening in the piano; the second movement with its conflict between this strong French overture-like idea in the orchestra and the very soft piano”. Plus, he adds, it’s one of the few concertos in which we get to see Beethoven smile: “Our received image of Beethoven is of an angry, grumpy, difficult composer. But he had a great sense of humour, he was generous, he had strong moral values,” he continues, “and the Fourth Concerto allows us to see this other side to him”.
It’s clear that Driver considers much more, when making music, than the notes themselves, which is hardly surprising. As a child growing up in the UK, he was interested in much besides music: sport, science, languages (his mother is Israeli, and Hebrew was his first language). And he embarked on a career as a solo pianist only after completing a degree in Natural Sciences at Cambridge University. “Even now, I continue to draw on other interests in my music making”, he says.
At the same time, he continues to widen his musical interests, embracing everything from Handel, to York Bowen, to the twentieth-century Hungarian composer Ligeti – a particular passion of Driver’s. “Ligeti was a composer who could come along in the 1980s and 1990s, after all that experimentation in the world of piano music, and who managed to completely reinvent pianistic language, just by using ten fingers on a keyboard.”
Is there anything Driver won’t play? He is stumped for a moment. “I generally think, if there’s a piece of music that doesn’t appeal, and it has been written by someone who knows what they are doing, then the fault is with me”. That said, he will admit that he has gone through particular phases. “Now I couldn’t do without Beethoven’s Sonatas, but when I was a postgrad student at the Royal College of Music I found them too utterly frustrating and difficult to play. I was mostly playing Scriabin’s music, which, conversely, I haven’t really touched since”. He continues, “There is something in Scriabin’s music that speaks of his egocentricity: he veered between thinking he was God and thinking he was nothing. I was fascinated by that quality then, but nowadays I find it difficult to relate to.”
To my ears this sounds like criticism, but when I suggest as much to Driver, he contradicts me. “I wouldn’t say I got fed up with Scriabin, I just wanted to explore other things. I enjoy the process of constantly redefining and re-evaluating.” With a fully packed schedule of performing, teaching, travelling, recording, how does he have time for this constant re-evaluation? “You find ways: just yesterday I was writing programme notes on my flight back from Japan”. Driver continues, “It might be good to calm down and play the same repertoire for a couple of years, but as soon as things fall into formula they lose their edge, and I don’t think that art does well standing still”.
Written by Hannah Nepil