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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 (1837) [29:13]
Kreisleriana Op.16 (1838) [35:43]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Theme and Variations in D minor, from String Sextet No. 1 Op. 18 (1859-60) [10:29]
Imogen Cooper (piano)
rec. 23-26 July 2012, Concert Hall, Snape Maltings, Suffolk
CHANDOS CHAN 10755 [75:32]

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 Garrick 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.
Dominy Clements 

See also review by Stephen Greenbank