Notes and Editorial Reviews
Also available: Schubert Live Vol 1 / Imogen Cooper and Schubert Live Vol 2 / Imogen Cooper
The highly respected and acclaimed pianist Imogen Cooper is enjoying something of a renaissance with her ongoing series of Schubert’s solo piano works on Avie. International accolades for the recordings abound, from NPR to the BBC, Gramophone to the New York Times. Imogen Cooper continues her
exploration of the composer’s late piano music with Volume 3, recorded live at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in December 2009.
Schubert was the ultimate romantic and Imogen brings out the full spectrum of his complex and colourful compositions, from the gentle German Dances, D790, and pearl-like Impromptus, D899, to the turbulent A minor Sonata, D 784, and mighty B flat Sonata, D960.
Imogen Cooper said: "I’m not afraid of being described as a Schubert specialist," even though her active repertoire ranges from Bach to Thomas Adès. "He has taken up a lot of my waking time for more than 30 years. In fact, you could say that his songs and his piano music have sometimes been close to an obsession for me." It is more than 20 years since Cooper made a live and recorded survey of all the piano music Schubert composed from early 1823 until his death in 1828 at the age of 31. "One of the reasons I’ve taken it all up again is that I feel it ten times more strongly than I did 20 years ago: the message has become more direct to me. Schubert has become even more necessary to my well-being, and I sense strongly that he is important for an audience’s well-being too."
"The climax of Imogen Cooper’s live Schubert piano recital, recorded by the BBC, is her magisterial performance of the B flat Sonata, D960, his last instrumental work. The vast first movement’s sense of repose is subtly tinged with Schubertian darkness, while in the bereft outer sections of the second movement, the poise of Cooper’s playing holds one breathless. Equally impressive are the Impromptus, D899, and two earlier Sonatas, the bleak A minor, D784, and the incomplete C major, D840. Cooper’s sense of rightness of colour and her exquisite balancing of textures fully justify her reputation as one of the great Schubertians of our time." -- Stephen Pettitt, Sunday Times (London) [5/16/2010]
Piano Sonatas: in a,
12 German Dances,
Hungarian Melody in b,
Allegretto in c,
Imogen Cooper (pn)
AVIE 2158 (2 CDs: 138:49) Live: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 12/8/2009, 4/15/2008, 4/22/2009
The accompanying interview cements the impression I already had of Imogen Cooper’s complete identification with the music of Schubert. The bulk of this issue (Volume 3 from Avie’s “Schubert Live” series) comes from the final recital of a series of six that Cooper gave at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. That concert (12/8/2009) actually began with the Four Impromptus, D 899, which here begin the second disc.
12 German Dances,
D 790, is a delightful set of dances that, as a unit, last just a touch over 11 minutes. The emotional range is extremely wide, however, from bright salon to a much more shadowy world. D 790 dates from May 1823, and two of the dances (Nos. 2 and 8) were included in the set of
16 German Dances,
D 783, that appeared on Cooper’s second volume in this series (AV2157). Cooper in all cases seems to understand and respect the integrity of these pieces (so often dismissed by those who might climb the peaks of the late sonatas). Her touch in both cases is ever-delightful.
The Sonata in A Minor, D 784, that follows is magnificent in its world-weariness. Cooper leaves the stark textures to resonate in all their bareness, producing a harrowing impression. At times the hardness of the louder tolling octaves recalls Richter’s monumental approach to Schubert; certainly there is a relentless aspect here. Given that the first movement unfolds over a 15-minute span, the balm of the central Andante is all the more welcome. Yet that balm is in itself misleading, for there are outbursts here too. The chasing figures of the finale are miraculously articulated; arpeggio-based outbursts are more phantasmagoric than anguished. This is a remarkable performance. Compared to Bolet in the Decca Eloquence performance I reviewed in
33:3, Cooper sits with the gods while Bolet remains staunchly earthbound. The difference between the two serves to indicate that a mediocre performance really does Schubert’s cause no favors at all, while in Cooper’s hands the piece emerges as the masterpiece it truly is.
Hungarian Melody in B Minor,
D 817, separates the two sonatas on this disc. The second of Schubert’s Hungarian sojourns (1824) brought forth, among others, this little piece and the
Divertissement à la hongroise
, D 818. The present
is affectionately dispatched by Cooper, who gently underscores the characteristic Hungarian elements. Finally for the first disc, the Sonata in C, D 840. A torso of two movements only, it is often referred to as the “Reliquie.” Cooper is magnificent in the second movement (Andante), honoring its contrasts as well as its trajectory. She sweetens her tone appropriately and ensures that Schubert’s harmonic shifts make maximum impact, as do the more dramatic outbursts.
The Impromptus, D 899, originally (in the actual concert) preceded the
and D 784; here they sit with the great D 960. Cooper’s articulation in the second impromptu (E?) is supremely impressive, as is her sense of drama coupled with textural clarity in the louder moments. The G? emerges like the blissful murmuring of an
-Schubertian brook, while the final A? approaches Elysian plains of the type more associated with the late sonatas themselves. Again, Cooper’s articulation is a joy.
It is perhaps surprising that there is no exposition repeat for the first movement of D 960 (given that Schubert wrote extra music for the return). What is unsurprising is Cooper’s sure grasp of the music’s ebb and flow, of the sonata as a whole’s structural integrity, and her beautiful, singing line. Cooper is not about the extensions of perceived time in the manner of Kissin or Richter. Flow remains intact. Bass trills hold an inner energy that seems to outlive their sonic durations. The desolation of the Andante sostenuto is palpable. Cooper invokes stasis without recourse to extremes of tempo. High contrast comes in the form of the Scherzo (here one can hear the link to the smaller sets of dances viscerally, with Cooper’s touch at its lightest yet with no loss of tone). The finale is a masterly mix of the suave, the charming, and the weighty. Of course, there is no single D 960 that gets an unqualified recommendation. To do the piece anything like justice, several versions should co-exist on any music lover’s shelves. There is no doubt, however, that this should be one of them.
The Allegretto in C Minor is a piece intended as a valediction (to Schubert’s lawyer friend Ferdinand Walcher). Its very nature suits the close of this set perfectly and, unsurprisingly, Cooper is most affecting.
The use of sets of smaller pieces set against larger sonatas has run throughout Cooper’s programming: in Volume 1 (2156), it was the
, D 781, that sit between the Sonata in A Minor, D 959, and the mighty
, D 946. Cooper’s programming is as sensitive as her impeccable playing. Her series of Mozart concertos with the Northern Sinfonia, also on Avie, is equally worth exploring. Try, for starters, the freshness of her “Jeunehomme” on Avie 2100, and then hear how she revels in the mightier 24th and 25th concertos on Avie 2175. Pure joy.
FANFARE: Colin Clarke
This is a recording of the third in an admirable series of recitals which Schubert specialist Imogen Cooper gave at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2008 and 2009. It must be said at the outset that these are wonderful interpretations … thoughtful, lyrical, perceptive, technically adept, persuasive - and very, very beautiful. Above all, they bring something new and lively to the way we know Schubert. And that's saying something.
Cooper's affinity with Schubert is well established: her six-volume survey of Schubert's 'last six years' on Ottavo won her much acclaim. She is aware of the competition… Brendel, Pollini, Lupu and Ashkenazy. But what she has to add apart from - perhaps because of - what those pianists have had to say should make every Schubert listener sit up and take notice.
Born in London, Cooper studied in Paris and Vienna. Her work as a soloist extends beyond recitals to appearances with New York Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw, Dresden Staatskapelle and Philharmonia orchestras. She is also an accompanist in Lieder with the likes of Mark Padmore and Wolfgang Holzmair and plays in duo with the cellist, Sonia Wieder-Atherton.
In this recital (as in the first two) Cooper is completely in control from first note to last. And she balances that control by revealing the innermost spirit of the music. It's as consistently evident as the technique needed for such communication is concealed. Cooper seems to remember that, although Schubert was writing at the start of the Romantic period, he was also writing at the end of the Classical. In other words, the romanticism, the feeling may not have limits; but they have origins. Her delicate and sensitive playing of the final work on these two CDs, the C Minor Allegretto of D915 [CD.2 tr.9] is a case in point. It misses nothing. Yet suggests so much more.
There can be no doubt that Cooper responds most readily to the romantic, the affective - at times to the tender - in Schubert's writing. Yet rarely does her playing become over-passionate; never does she unduly accentuate the visionary for its own sake. It's always the music first and last. The end of the
andante sostenuto of the B Flat major sonata (D960) [CD.2 tr.6], for example, has the ethereal and wistful which we expect. Almost as Brendel plays late Beethoven. But its structure is evident too. There's a barely suppressed rigour. Such rigour comes not chiefly from following what Schubert wrote bar by bar. But from a total and perhaps rather rare, awareness of the architecture of the entire four-movement, 40-minute, construction. The gentleness and languor only become as marked as makes sense in the context of the rest of the work.
By the same token, the cold water which splashes us throughout the following two faster movements Cooper only takes at a pace which won't break the spell. It's such 'thoughtful' water (or is, at least, thoughtfully thrown) that by the middle third of the
allegro [CD.2 tr.8] we are firmly yet calmly reminded of the haunting qualities both of that recent
andante; and of the even longer (16 minutes) opening
molto moderato movement. Qualities, not atmosphere: Cooper's rigour again. Her playing is not impressionistic. But highly disciplined. Disciplined, though, to bring out all the pain and regret which this music tells us Schubert must have felt.
Cooper is on record as saying that she doesn't find the absence of an audience detrimental to her making the most of Schubert's music. To listen to her concentration, her responsiveness to every nuance of these wonderful pieces and to her subtle variations in tempo (the end of the D960 is a case in point … the final rush is held back just the right amount) is first to ask what it can be that thus gives her studio recordings such presence. And then to answer with one word of which Cooper must approve: Schubert. She becomes utterly rapt in the music. She allows it to speak to us with great directness. Yet not to run away with us. That blend of discipline and feeling again.
The acoustic is somewhat grand; it's that of the QEH, after all. But the engineers have successfully captured the intimacy and bravura of her playing, and of the occasion. Most pieces are applauded - we hear that briefly. The booklet has background, commentary and a biography of Cooper which is, characteristically, shorter than Misha Donat's essay on the music.
The real test with so many other recordings of this repertoire available on CD is whether you will want to return to listen to these often. The answer in this case is clear: Yes.
-- Mark Sealey, MusicWeb International
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