Patrick Rucker
International Record Review
December 2014

In many senses the 1838 Novelettes are quintessential Schumann, with their imaginative harmonies, fascinatingly inventive textures, wide-ranging moods and ravishing lyricism. If their intrinsic interest weren’t sufficient, they contain, in terms of piano playing, a veritable lexicon of every gesture Brahms confided to the keyboard avant la lettre. Though Schumann intended the Novelettes to be a cycle, along the lines of Carnaval or Papillons, they are heard that way almost exclusively on recordings. These eight pieces share a similarity of form that, when heard live and in succession during the course of 50 minutes, tend to fatigue all but the most stalwart listeners.

Danny Driver’s traversal of the full set, constituting the heart of his new Schumann CD on Hyperion, while certainly not lacking variety, is perhaps also best sampled in smaller servings, one or two at a time. Otherwise, their many strengths, such as the protean humour with which he imbues the A major Novelette (No. 7) or the varieties of touch brought to bear on the bravura figurations of the D major (No. 2), are likely to be lost. I am partial to the last (No. 8 in F sharp minor), where the transitions between Schumann’s shifting moods are handled with particular deftness, creating virtue out of prolixity; to the ball scene (No. 4 in D major), where Driver seems to suggest the droll sight of dancers occasionally slipping and sliding on an overly polished floor; and to the perennial favourite of the lot, the F major (No. 1), where Driver’s overly pompous articulation of the robust opening is the perfect tongue-in-cheek send-up of generations of emptily blustering performances.

The varying character of each of the Night Pieces from 1839 is given an appropriate air of confused ambivalence. ‘Funeral Procession’ (No. 1) seems the spiritual precursor of Gounod’s ‘Funeral March of a Marionette’, though less austere, since Schumann’s mourners seem occasionally tempted to break character and skip for a yard or two. The ‘Strange Company’ of the second piece must be a weird lot indeed. Their chatter seems to send the ‘narrator’ into a withdrawn reverie dangerously close to paranoia. The third piece could be the barcarolle of a small boat on rough water, its sense of exhilaration occasionally tempered by fear of drowning. The last piece could evoke the not altogether unpleasant sensation of feeling one’s way in the dark. A beautiful, understated reading of the popular F sharp major Romance rounds out the programe.

e. If there were one quality in Driver’s extraordinarily sensitive and admirable piano playing I could use a bit more of, it might be rhythmic flexibility. While his interpretations never seem rigid or unyielding, the tasteful application of a more pronounced organic rubato would surely enhance music of this period and perhaps lend it a more personal stamp. Curiously, the piano sound as recorded comes off as a bit squishy. It could be that the instrument had been freshly voiced and regulated and had yet to settle in, or perhaps this was a conscious editing decision to enhance dynamics. In any case, quiet passages, particularly those with lowered dampers, seem feathery and loud ones have a tendency to boom, the hammer impact on the string all but indiscernible. Those reservations notwithstanding, Driver is an interesting pianist and I look forward to hearing him again.