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Schubert: Imogen Cooper (piano) Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 8.12.2009 (BBr)

Four Impromptus, D899 (1827)
Zwölf Ländler (12 German Dances), D790 (?1822)

Piano Sonata in A minor, D784 (1823)
Piano Sonata in Bb, D960 (1828)

This was both a challenging and very exciting culmination to Imogen Cooper’s six recitals focusing on Schubert’s final 6 years. It was also wholly satisfying.

Starting with the Impromptus which might seem to make a Sonata, but the material and layout is incorrect for such a thought, we were lulled into a sense of well being, the famous, and ever delightful, 2nd and 4th in particular, leading us to believe that this was to be a pleasant evening of piano music. The German Dances went even further to putting us in a comfortable position. It was with the high drama and tragedy of the A minor Sonata that we realized that we were experiencing the astonishing mind of a man living under a death sentence. Of course, if I’d been listening more attentively I would have heard the disturbances in the earlier Impromptus for they are not always the easy listen I somehow mistook them for. Of course, this is the genius of Ms Cooper, for she was able to lull us into this sense of security then destroy our complacent world with the devastation of the A minor Sonata.

The bold octaves, frightening, and immediate, changes from very soft to very loud, wild, fast, movement and an upward thrusting, yet almost funereal, theme all sit side by side as Schubert unleashes music of great power. This is just the first movement, what an achievement it is, and how well did Ms Cooper capture all the tragedy and world weariness (including an important repeat of the exposition) of the music. It was worth the price of admission just to hear such an intelligent interpretation. The slow movement wasn’t without its share of event, and Ms Cooper well differentiated between lyrical and violent episodes. The scherzo–like finale was all hustle and Ms Cooper showed her strengths in Schubert in never allowing this music to become out of control, holding it back just enough to show the final snuffing out of the music, with four loud, emphatic, chords of A minor to be a death knell, and not, perhaps just for this work.

After the interval Ms Cooper essayed Schubert’s final Sonata, written in September 1828, a mere two months before his death, which shows a more calm and serene composer than the earlier work would have us believe existed. This work has all the serenity of the great String Quintet, and a similar playing time, as with Bruckner, sometimes the material you create needs a big time span for it to tell us all its stories. This was a magnificent performance which showed the time Ms Cooper had spent working out the best way to allow her audience to fully understand the music. If I have no quibble it is that she didn’t repeat the first movement exposition and one wonders why because Schubert bothered to write nine bars which lead back into the repeat. If he hadn’t cared whether the repeat was taken he wouldn’t have bothered to create these special bars of music. But apart from that, the first movement, with its elusive lyricism, outbursts of fury (but not, perhaps, anger) and beautifully rested conclusion, went very well, as did the almost impressionistic Andante which followed. Ms Cooper saw the scherzo as the obvious street music it is, joyful and playful – she displayed a delightfully light touch here – and the strange finale, is this supposed to be a Hungarian Rondo? I am never sure, was, as with the earlier work, slightly held back so the helter skelter coda really drove home the completion of the work and the completion of Schubert’s great series of Piano Sonatas.

With Ms Cooper the mistress of her instrument,  this recital was a triumph for her and her series of Schubert performances. Fortunately it was recorded both by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast and by AVIE for release on CD. Neither can be missed.

Bob Briggs

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