Frederick CHOPIN (1810-1849) Polonaise-fantaisie Op. 61 [13.20] Nocturne in B flat Op. 62 no. 1 [7.19] Nocturne Op. 62 no. 2 [5.54] Fantaisie Op. 49 [13.00] Ballade Op. 52 No. 4 [12.15] Nocturne Op. 27 no. 2 [7.07] Ballade in G minor Op. 23 No. 1 [9.54] Nocturne Op. 55 no. 2 [6.22] Berceuse in D flat Op. 57 [5.12]
Imogen Cooper (piano - Steinway model D, 2007)
rec. Concert Hall, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, 3-6 November 2015 CHANDOS CHAN10902 [80.49]
When I had notice that Imogen Cooper had brought out a Chopin disc I thought this was something I just had to hear and was delighted when it arrived. If you look through her discography you will find, also on Chandos, discs of Schumann and Brahms (CHAN10755), Robert and Clara Schumann (CHAN10841) and Schumann alone (CHAN10874). You will also find, elsewhere, recordings of Schubert and Mozart but this very generously filled disc is her first dalliance with Chopin.
In her booklet notes she admits that “it has taken me many years to articulate this challenge”. That is the challenge of looking afresh at the music she has grown up with even since her student days. So she has methodically prepared a varied and personal programme and she writes that as a result “the journey has been, and continues to be, varied and wonderful”. I was perhaps hoping for some unusual insight into some of these pieces but as in the case of the Ballade No. 1 in G minor she seems to have played safe and there are no revelations. Even so the programme offered is so intriguing that it is worth sticking with even if you may end up feeling that she might want to record more Chopin in a few years time.
So we start, quite bravely, with the Polonaise-fantaisie Op. 61. I say 'brave' because it is one of the master’s last works and one of his least appreciated. Roger Nichols in his excellent notes reminds us that Liszt “had serious reservations” about the work. Indeed there is more in it of ‘Fantaisie’ than ‘Polonaise’. Cooper does indeed bring out the melancholic lyricism very successfully; it is one of her strengths in this and in many other of the pieces. Incidentally, having seen the plaster cast of Chopin’s hands in the Warsaw Chopin-house it's quite astonishing how such a small compass could conceive of some of the hand figurations required in this piece.
The disc also has another Fantaisie, an earlier one Op. 49, but the same length as the Op. 61. Ironically, it is tightly constructed and in many ways could be thought of as a sonata movement especially in its curious key relationship of B major to F minor and then ending in A flat major. I have heard pianists take the opening dotted rhythms at a very funereal pace. Cooper moves it on a little more and again, brings out the wonderful lyricism of the music particularly in the hymn-like and mystical section at just after seven minutes in.
The other ‘great’ work represented here is Ballade No. 4 in F minor. It's true that one might hear more touching performances but the form and poetic drama are well articulated by Cooper and it’s location on the CD as track 5 immediately after the Op. 49 works well.
Then there are the Nocturnes - that form developed so amazingly by Chopin from John Field. This disc is clearly of Cooper’s planning so it's curious and revealing that the more mature Op. 62 Nocturnes are placed in tracks 2 and 3 with the earlier ones coming at tracks 6 and 8. My favourite anyway is the B flat Nocturne Op. 62 no. 1. I have, in truth, been more captivated by Vlado Perlemuter and indeed by Rubinstein but Cooper does play this poetically and with a honeyed tone; that comment also applies to the next, Op. 62 no. 2. The other three Nocturnes — Op. 27 no. 2, with its allegiance to the music of Bellini, Op. 55 no. 2 and Op. 66 no. 2 — are played without fluster and with much delicacy. Cooper also imparts a feeling of distance between the music and the listener which doesn’t quite appeal.
The disc ends quite delightfully, not with a bang but a whimper. This comes in the shape of the Berceuse in D flat of 1843. It's amazingly simple music, just a tonic and dominant chaconne, almost, and then a wonderfully ornamented line gently easing itself around the harmonies. It's very beautifully handled by Cooper, allowing the music to express itself without effort.
No doubt this disc will sell well, and in many ways it should. I also hope that Imogen Cooper looks again at this multi-layered composer and finds even more in him to excite us. Gary Higginson