Imogen Cooper can be relied upon to provide a satisfying,
frequently thought-provoking listening experience, and this QEH recital
was no exception (see my review
of her recital at the Wigmore almost exactly a year ago on Seen &
Heard: January 29th, 2002). This was careful yet brave
programming: her recital included two large Schubert Sonatas offset
by two sets of variations. A real test of stamina on both interpretative
and physical levels, therefore: Cooper’s own comment that her recital
was ‘without a superfluous note in its composition’ was fully justified.
Beethoven’s Variations in B flat on ‘La stessa, la
stessissima’ (from Salierei’s Falstaff), WoO73, received a rare
airing. This piece dates from 1799 and marks the midpoint in Beethoven’s
output of sets of variations. The theme is from a duet in a Salieri
opera: it is simple in conception (as all well-behaved variation subjects
are) and, in this performance, fundamentally cheeky. Of course Beethoven
submits this to a variety of emotional shades which Salieri probably
would never have considered: Cooper shaded the minor key 5th
variation poignantly, for example. She made the best possible case for
this set (a nice walking bass in the third variation and a determined
sixth), and it fulfilled its function as a foil for Schubert’s D major
Sonata, D850, perfectly.
Dating from 1825, D850 is a huge work. Perhaps surprisingly,
Cooper highlighted the structural aspect of the first movement over
any inherent wit, an impression given first and foremost by her tempo
(a true Allegro). Played in this fashion, Schubert’s mighty statement
unfolded naturally, and grippingly, in front of us. Cooper sustained
the dramatic argument throughout, so that the ensuing ‘Con moto’ contrasted
perfectly, impeccably shaped and possessed of an agile contrasting section.
Cooper’s impeccably weighted chording provided the highpoint of the
next movement (Scherzo and Trio) while the interpretatively tricky Rondo,
with its music-box main theme, brought with it grace and charm in abundance.
Mirroring the first part of the recital in structure,
the second part fought valiantly to live up to generated expectations.
Haydn’s Variations in F minor, HobXVII:6 (1793) had much to recommend
it. Its tranquil opening led into a fragile, interior world (Cooper
seemed to be making firm allusions to C.P.E. Bach at various points),
but was marred by a memory lapse which seemed to cast its shadow over
the performance of the A major Sonata, D959 (1828). The first movement
struggled to attain grandeur, and tonal elements were not as controlled
as in D850. The music’s disturbing undercurrents came through effectively,
however, and Cooper’s harmonic sensitivity throughout was undimmed.
The jewel of the four movements was the F sharp minor slow movement.
Stillness lay at the opening’s core, a wintry stasis that contrasted
perfectly with the impassioned middle section. The recitative-like passages
were impressive in their skeletal bareness.
A welcome and stimulating beginning to the Spring Season
of the International Piano Series, in which we can look forward to the
likes of Uchida, Pollini and Brendel.