Imogen Cooper established her reputation playing Mozart and Schubert.
Here she performs solo piano works by another composer whose music
she has been closely associated with, Robert Schumann. The works chosen
for this CD are the Fantasiestücke, Op.12 and Kreisleriana, Op. 16.
These are tentatively linked in that they owe their inspiration, in
a sense, to the author, composer and music critic, E.T.A. Hoffmann.
The Fantasiestücke (fantasy pieces), Op. 12 dates from 1837.
It is a set of eight pieces which took its inspiration from a collection
of novellas entitled Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier, written
by E.T.A Hoffmann in 1814. Schumann dedicated the composition to the
Scottish pianist Anna Robena Laidlaw, with whom he had had a brief
flirtation. The eight pieces were given their titles after composition.
They are in no way programmatic, rather their titles suggest the images
each conjured up for Schumann. Both here and in Kreisleriana, Florestan
and Eusebius, the fictional characters, who denote the duality of
Schumann’s personality, can be recognized. Florestan represents the
impulsive, passionate, bold and brash side of his personality; Eusebius,
the dreamy, melancholic side.
Whether or not, as some modern scientific research seems to suggest,
Schumann suffered from bipolar disorder, I am not qualified to say.
However, I do feel that if works by Schumann such as these are to
be successful, the performer needs to be able to portray the mood
changes, or the Florestan and Eusebius of the composer’s personality.
With Fantasiestücke, there is great poetry in Cooper’s playing. In
the opening piece Des Abends, she brings out the beautiful
melody in the right hand, shaping it with elegant phrasing. I love
the way she points the left hand cross-rhythms, delineating the changes
of harmony. Then the mood is changed completely in the next piece,
Aufschwung. Here there is real drama, but hers is contained.
Argerich (EMI CDM 763576), on the other hand, seems a little wayward,
throwing all caution to the wind; her Aufschwung feels rushed.
In Fabel, Cooper voices the opening chords exquisitely and,
in contrast, the schnell section is capricious. These contrasts
Cooper sustains throughout. Some may find her performance too measured,
I think she strikes just the right balance. Perhaps she does not display
the formidable virtuosity of Argerich, as in the scintillating fingerwork
in Traumes Wirren, which is breathtaking, but I can forgo
that. I also listened to Alfred Brendel’s recording (Philips 434 732).
Interestingly, Brendel was her mentor and even though I am an enthusiastic
devotee, I thought the performance somewhat staid in comparison, and
I did not particularly care for his piano sound.
In Kreisleriana, once again the inspiration comes from the
literary work by E.T.A. Hoffmann mentioned above. Its central character
Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler is disillusioned by the apathy and
indifference in the way the public receives his music. Schumann maybe
identified with these sentiments. He decided to name the Op. 16 set
of pieces after this fictional character.
He was certainly convinced that Kreisler was based on a musician named
Ludwig Bonner, whom he got to know in Leipzig. Kreisleriana, a set
of eight pieces, was composed in April 1838 in the space of four days.
Schumann was in the midst of a greatly productive period, working
in the white heat of inspiration. Yet, all the while, he was toiling
against the background of his attempts to marry Clara Wieck being
thwarted by her father.
Anyone recording Kreisleriana today is up against a vast field of
competition; there is an abundance of very fine recordings. As a preliminary
to writing this review, this week I have listened to wonderful performances
by Lupu (Decca 440 496), Ashkenazy (Decca 470 915), Kempff (DG 471
312) and Anda (Testament SBT 1069). Cooper’s Kreisleriana can hold
its own in the face of this stiff competition. Her tempi are perfectly
judged, with excellent phrasing and superb dynamic control. Her interpretation
is poetic, as in no. 5 (sehr lebhaft) and passionate, as
in no. 7 (sehr rasch). Throughout she brings out the Florestan
and Eusebius character of each piece. She clearly has a great affinity
with this music.
The Brahms Theme and Variations were given to Schumann’s widow,
Clara on her forty-first birthday in 1860. They are based on a solemn,
melancholy theme. Cooper manages to capture just the right mood, emphasizing
the dark hues. Her playing has great virtuosity and is highly polished.
Placed between the two Schumann works, the Variations provide a very
The piano sound (Steinway Model D (579 072)) is well-focused, and
the spacious, airy acoustic of the Concert Hall, Snape Maltings is
an excellent complement. Nicholas Marston’s booklet notes are informative,
and we get the added bonus of a personal note by Cooper, herself,
who states: ‘Duality, intermingling and juxtaposing identities,
the dream world, the subconscious, wild humour, the supernatural,
disguise, the outsider; such is the inner world of Robert Schumann.’
It is all here.