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S & H Recital Review

C. Schumann, Brahms, R. Schumann Imogen Cooper (piano). Wigmore Hall, Tuesday, January 29th, 2002 (CC).

All of the characteristics that distinguish Imogen Cooperís particular brand of pianism were here in abundance in this recital: the warm, sensitive touch; the instinctive feeling for the Romantic phrase; the careful elucidation of the musicís textures; the skilful use of the pedal (bar a couple of careless clearances); the essentially non-interventionist approach. But there was also something more: including pieces with fiendish, if sometimes hidden, difficulties revealed a rock-solid technique that has always been there, serving the music first and foremost.

Originally, the programme was to have been purely by Mr and Mrs Schumann, but a late substitution of Brahmsí Variations on an Original Theme in D, Op. 21 No. 1 for Robert Schumannís Novelette in D, Op. 21 No. 2 meant that the gang was, so to speak, all present and correct. In the end, the various pieces served to illuminate each other resulting in a satisfying symbiosis of Romanticism brought about by the common thread of Cooperís sensitivity.

Clara Schumannís Variations on a Theme of Schumann, Op. 20 was given a performance that would be hard to better. Cooperís clarity of tone and chordal weighting meant that the first statement of the theme was affecting in its simplicity. This piece, which dates from 1853, is a well-constructed entity that seemed to flow perfectly naturally in this performance, and as Claraís imagination opened out as the variations progressed, so Cooper blossomed. It is interesting that Cooper is such an undemonstrative pianist (she moves very little when she plays): all her energies, technical and musical, seem to be concentrated into the projection of her interpretations.

The contrast between Clara and Robertís musical worlds was immediate and actually quite disturbing, for it threw into relief not only Robertís compositional superiority but also the delicate and troubled balance of his mind-set. Cooper brought out the almost obsessive elements of the Novelette in F sharp minor, Op. 21 No. 8 (1838) and highlighted the delicate balance of the quirky and the positively inspired. When Brahms appeared on the scene (later, in the second half), Cooperís clearly affectionate and lovingly shaded reading of the Op. 21 No. 1 Variations revealed how Brahms in lyrical and dreamy mode nevertheless maintains an underlying harmonic directionality which is more solid than some of Robert Schumannís more extreme meanderings. Brahmsí range of textures is remarkable, and it is in just this sort of challenge that Cooper excels.

Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26 and the Humoreske, Op. 20 hardly turn up in recitals every day, so it was a treat to have them both in the same concert. If the Scherzino of Faschingsschwank was somewhat cumbersome and the opening ĎSehr lebhaftí could have been a little more abandoned (more schwungvoll, perhaps), Cooper relished the yearning dissonances of the Romanze. It is a tribute to her fingerwork that the Finale emerged as crystal clear, even from the back of the hall.

There had been so much to enjoy up until the Humoreske that it came by now as no surprise that Cooper could rise to the challenge of this piece so effectively. She was palpably more exciting in the opening sections (egged on by adrenalin, possibly) and brilliantly realised the shifting, restless qualities of the piece. Her presentation of Schumannís sometimes bleak, fragmentary textures was all the more effective for her lack of apology for them: no glossing over here. It almost went unnoticed that the cripplingly difficult octave passages hardly caused a ripple in the musical flow, so engrossed was one in the ongoing musical argument.

Cooper is a pianist of many faces. As a Romantic recitalist she obviously offers most rewarding experiences; she shows a commendable advocacy of contemporary music (she co-commissioned and premièred Adèsí Traced Overhead, for example); as a recitalist, she is uncommonly attentive to her soloistís needs while simultaneously giving riveting accounts of the accompanying parts (her partnership with Wolfgang Holzmair is clear testimony to this). Her concert on March 21st with Holzmair and her solo recital on April 25th both promise rich musical rewards.

Colin Clarke




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