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S & H Recital Review

Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn Imogen Cooper (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, Wednesday, February 26th, 2003 (CC).



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.

Colin Clarke






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