The International Piano Festival continues to be Houston’s most endearing piano recital series. This year the festival ran Feb. 5-6, and featured founder and UH Distinguished Cullen Professor of Piano Abbey Simon, Danny Driver and Di Wu. The festival included three recitals, three master classes and an artist conversation luncheon.
Simon, founder of the festival, was the most renowned presence. He continues to dazzle audiences with the most demanding music in the piano repertory. His Beethoven Bagatelles (Op. 33) were full of lyricism, color and charm. Simon emphasized the humor of the pieces to great effect. His technique shows no sign of lagging. Octaves, double-thirds, arpeggios, you name it — Simon tossed them off with panache.
In his Chopin Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Simon reminded us that the grand master is still very much capable. The counterpoint in the first movement was discursive, the voices conversing with each other, and the gestures marked by contour, inflection and flair.
In the second movement, he brought his coveted jeu perlé touch, beginning the movement with a murmur and ending with a sweep of tongue-in-cheek humor in the spirit of the scherzo. The slow movement began with great decisiveness and drifted into a wistful reverie melting away into silence. Simon then began the finale, which was performed with sparkling virtuosity, apt proportion and a refined sense of architecture.
The second half began with two Rachmaninoff Preludes. Simon’s Rachmaninoff was characterized by clarity of line and melancholic expressivity. The program concluded with Ravel’s Miroirs. Simon showed UH how it’s done by bringing out joy, grace and lyricism to the formidable Miroirs. His rendition of the “Alborada del Gracioso” inspired the audience to a standing ovation. Simon offered two encores to placate the audience’s enthusiasm.
Danny Driver is a highly underrated pianist who is deserving of greater recognition and acclaim. The Mozart Sonata in F Major, K. 332, was full of fleeting lightness, warmth, playful exuberance and flair.
In the Schumann Symphonic Etudes, Driver brought a grandness of gesture and nobility that immediately endeared this reviewer to those dreadful pieces. Driver plays with an eloquence rarely heard in the younger generation of performers.
After the intermission, Driver played a few of Debussy’s Images. Driver highlighted the mysterious sounds and color. He brought us to his home in England with the impetuous Sonata No. 5 in F Minor by York Bowen.
Driver received a well-deserved standing ovation and offered Chopin’s “Aeolian Harp” Etude as an encore. This was done with such charm that it left the audience sighing.
This year’s festival was a great success. If you can catch the likes of an artist on the caliber of Abbey Simon or Danny Driver, then you are in for a treat.