With superbly recorded and very fine performances such as these I
always find it hardest to make a case one way or another, simply since
there are numerous other superbly recorded and very fine performances
of the same music which can be found elsewhere. Brand loyalty can
play its part here, and if you already know you like Chandos’s
attractively glossy presentation and the sheen of sheer quality around
most of their recordings then this is the kind of thing you will make
a beeline for in the shops. By no standard of comparison is anyone
likely to be disappointed by this release, and Imogen Cooper’s
reputation and position near the top of the heap when it comes to
piano soloists remains assured and enhanced.
Alfred Brendel has the Fantasiestücke and Kreisleriana
along with Kinderszenen on a single disc, Philips 434 732-2.
Brendel’s poetry in Schumann is very good, and his feel for
the composer’s sensitive intimacy of expression is pretty irresistible.
Cooper has greater extremes of contrast though, and the sense of Schumann’s
emotional instability is more raw in movements such as the second
in Fantasiestücke, Aufschwung. One senses Brendel
absorbing and filtering the whole Leipzig atmosphere, where Cooper
seeks out and penetrates Schumann’s inner worlds. Take the startling
opening of Kreisleriana, where she explores real extremes in
the nervy writing, hitting that top note as if wanting the string
to break. She also makes Brendel sound almost perfunctory in the second
movement, using over two minutes extra in her intense delving into
Schumann’s eloquent and heartfelt statements.
Holding Schumann’s opuses apart and stopping them from bumping
together like the third pedal on Victor Borge’s piano is Brahms’s
glorious Theme and Variations from the String Sextet No.
1, Op. 18. This is perhaps not quite as grand and impressive as
Ohlsson’s Hyperion recording, but still pretty good. I prefer
the way Ohlsson strums sternly at the accompanying chords, delivering
the inspired impact of those rising harmonies to greater effect than
Cooper, who focuses more on the upper line.
It seems I keep coming back to Radu Lupu’s Decca
box, but there’s no avoiding his Kreisleriana. This
opens with even more madness than Cooper, the first movement coming
in at a frantic 2:23. Cooper is 2:53, Brendel 2:48 which, like the
aroma of a wine cork, tells us nothing about the actual wine. Lupu
has a tendency to push the music, seeking the boundaries of a kind
of leading edge when it comes to the inner tempi: like the sound barrier
being drilled through by Concorde but with the more elastic resistance
of art rather than plain air. Lupu’s performance is compelling,
the recording a little thinner than the Chandos alternative but still
very decent. With ruminative pieces such as the fourth movement Lupu
is capable of creating moods of wistful longing and noble restraint.
Either Cooper or the fuller sound of the recording gives a more rounded
impression of Schumann’s enigmatic wanderings, making his searching
into something at times almost religious. Kreisleriana came
just a couple of years before Schumann arrived at his ‘year
of song’, and his lyrical sense does at time seem to be searching
for some elusive ideal which the literary element would help solve.
Cooper has this sense of abstraction poised beautifully, the contrasts
between Schumann’s fragments of utterly sublime melody and his
stormy outbursts set against each other in a delicious gallimaufry
of musical poetry and churning emotions. Interestingly, Cooper also
released a Kreisleriana in 1995 on a BBC Music Magazine CD,
and the difference in timings would make for intriguing comparisons
if the disc were to hand. This is however ample evidence of her long
and clearly deeply thought-through Schumann interpretations, which
are deeply satisfying on very many levels indeed.
See also review by Stephen