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Imogen Cooper 60th Birthday Concert - Mendelssohn, Schubert, C. & R. Schumann, Janáček: Imogen Cooper, Paul Lewis (pianos), Mark Padmore (tenor), Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone), Sonia Wieder-Atherton (cello). Wigmore Hall 28.9.2009 (CC) 

Can it really be that Imogen Cooper is really 60? Not to look at her, certainly. Her whole demeanour is that of someone half her years, and maybe in this lies one of the keys to the appeal of her playing. She combines the wisdom (and humility, of which more later) of maturity with the freshness of someone half her age. That the Wigmore was packed out spoke volumes as to her popularity; her friends onstage were supplemented by musical friends in the audience too, including Alfred Brendel.

Cooper began with an unannounced (and uncredited as to author) fantasy on themes from Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier. Charming, and including some lovely left-hand “horn” figures, this was a lovely surprise. Cooper said that people had commented on there being no solo music in her own birthday concert, a typically self-effacing move, and she had finally bowed to well-meaning pressure.

The actual announced programme began with four duets by Mendelssohn sung by Mark Padmore and Wolfgang Holzmair. There was much joy to be had here too. The fast, light “Ich wollt’, meine Liebe ergösse dich”, Op. 63/1 was a delight, not least for Cooper’s light-as-feather accompaniment. Padmore and Holzmair reacted to each other very well and the minor-mode “Abschiedslied der Zugvögel”, Op. 63/2 showed just how well-matched their voices were. The third, “Gruss”, Op. 63/3, revealed Cooper taking a seemingly nondescript accompaniment and making it absolutely mesmeric. The active “Wasserfahrt”, Op. 50/4, was a lovely end to the set. There was an interesting difference in the stage actions between the two singers, with Holzmair substantially more active, some might say positively “hammy”. Close your eyes though, and all was joy.

Padmore’s light, expressive voice was featured in the Schubert set. The beguiling piano opening of An die Laute, D905 (1827) was deliciously rendered by Cooper, her left-hand staccato beautifully toned. Over this, Padmore phrased the charming song most fetchingly. In contrast, Abendstern, D806 (1824) was a perfect expression of loneliness, with Padmore’s blanched tone being used to great effect. This setting from Mayrhofer was, in effect, the first true shadow of the evening, out of which came the stillness of Dass sie hier gewesen”, D775 (c. 1823). Here, Padmore and Cooper worked the music carefully towards its intense final stanza (“Beauty or love, can they remain concealed?”). The late song Die Sterne, D939 (1828) was a lighter note. Padmore delivered eloquent simplicity, backed by Cooper’s identifiably brighter sound.

The next segment of the first half comprised Lieder by Robert and Clara Schumann, sung by Holzmair. The Holzmair/Cooper partnership is a strongly established one, and their rapport was everywhere in evidence. Holzmair’s acting was much in evidence too, wagging a finger here, spreading out his arms there. Musically, this was fine work, however. Holzmair’s strong voice against a swirling piano accompaniment meant that Clara Schumann’s “O Lust, O Lust” (Op. 23/6, to a poem by Hermann Rollett) emerged as a remarkably strong piece. The two contrasting “Lieder aus dem Schenkenbuch” I and II (Robert) led to a magnificent Clara song, “Die stille Lotosblume”, Op. 13/6. On a text by Emanuel Giebel, this superb meditation on Nature with its fascinating harmonies and mystery emerged as a highlight of the concert. The two songs, “Venezianisches Lied” I and II (Op. 25 Nos. 17 and 18) also caught the feel of the evening wonderfully.

Cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton was the next guest. The idea of sandwiching two of (Robert) Schumann’s Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102 (known to many, surely, through the Rostropovich/Britten recording) between Janáček’s three Pohádky (folk tales) was inspired. The worlds of both composers are so evocative, and both here linked to folk idioms, so that there was no conflict. Cooper was the force that enabled us to enter into this twilit world. If Wieder-Atherton’s tone could have been more radiant in the second of Schumann’s pieces, she redeemed herself in the superb stopping of the third. Both players activated the abrupt contrasts of the second Janáček piece, but it was in the third and final Podádka that excellence really shone. Here was folk music trying to birth itself in a manner that could only have come from Janáček’s pen. Superb.

The second part of the concert was shorter. Schubert’s great song, Auf dem Strom, D943 (1828) features an instrumental obbligato usually (and rightly, in my humble opinion) heard on french horn. There is an ossia for cello though, and that is what was presented on this occasion. I admit bias – I spent many years playing the horn myself – so the cello always sounds like second best here. Nevertheless, Wieder-Atherton was excellent, and her sound imparted a great sense of nostalgia. Holzmair was the most eloquent I had heard him all evening, fully projecting the protagonist’s longing for his homeland, even if diction suffered occasionally (the “sch” of “Nun so schau’ ich” was lost at the back of the hall).

Finally (on the advertised programme) was Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor, D940 for which Cooper was joined by Paul Lewis (Lewis was secondo, naturally). Here unforced naturalness was all, highlighting moments of loveliness, of radiance of a particularly Schubertian source. The couple delivered an absolutely charming Trio in contrast to the initially play-averse Scherzo. Rugged counterpoint elsewhere balanced this. A memorable account.

Of course there was an encore, but what was it to be?. Something for everyone, with even a cello – pizzicato doubling of the bass-line in Brahms’ “O die Frauen” from the Liebeslieder-Walzer, Op. 52.

Colin Clarke

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