The night of pianist Imogen Cooper’s recital in Melbourne coincided with celebration of 70-year-old host organisation Musica Viva Australia’s launch of its 2015 International Concert Season. Red balloons festooned the Recital Centre foyer, there was an impressive floral display on stage and, as if to match the look, the pianist chose to appear in a stylish, long red skirt and piano-black jacket.
Cooper’s many fans would have been delighted with the program which comprised:
BRAHMS Theme and Variations in D minor (arr. from String Sextet Op.18
SCHUMANN Davidsbündlertänze Op.6
SCHUMANN Novelletten Op.21, No.2 in D major
SCHUBERT Piano Sonata no 21 in B flat major, D960
The presence of MVA president, composer Carl Vine, lent gravitas to the occasion and there was excitement as he reeled off an impressive list of artists who will perform in Australia for MVA next year. But on this night, the distinguished performer was Imogen Cooper whose authority as an exponent of the repertoire was enhanced by her remarks after interval but was evident well before that.
First, however, was the music – and a program re-arrangement, so that the first piece was the Brahms Theme and Variations in D minor. After Cooper’s careful and stately articulation of the Theme, chord-based with some accidentals, the there was a sonorous first variation, after which the others segued gently into each other. At just 11 minutes, the work is more remarkable for its contrasting dynamics and almost hypnotic sound. Cooper’s interpretation was notable for evenness aided by skilful pedalling.
Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze (Dances of the League of David) which followed, was a more extended vehicle for both the music and the pianist’s empathy with it. All 18 dances had specific markings, mostly to do with tempo, the first a lively start. Cooper’s touch seemed effortless, her phrasing perfect and a delicacy of sound carried through to the second dance, “intimate” and warm.
The third, “with humour” showed the ease of Cooper’s playing, never losing the sense of melody, even at speed. It was amusing that the next dance was marked “impatient’ but was much slower than expected! We were treated to dazzling technique (No.6), a sonorous ballad (No.10) and quintessential Schumann in the “tender, singing” No.14. The dances offered contrasts in tempo and mood, but there was unity thanks to Cooper’s ease and empathy with the composer’s work. The quiet chords leading to a flowing ending made even clichés like “caressing the keys” seem apt.
After interval, Imogen Cooper addressed the audience on the “fun” of constructing a program and the shift from the “starters/mains/desserts” approach to thinking about what connects pieces, “intellectually and in the ear”. Cooper’s interest in composers and their works is scholarly and informs her performance, although the word “heart” recurs in much of her discussion. The pianist confessed: “Schumann and Schubert are major contenders for my heart”.
Schumann’s Novelletten Op.21, No.2 in D major showed his genius, Cooper said – but demonstrated her own virtuosity as she gave a polished performance of the work marked “extremely quick and with bravura”. Although Schumann and Schubert shared a tendency to composer “heartbreaking, quiet interludes”, Schubert had a “startling inner world”, a deep feeling for nature and “the pulse and heartbeat of a walker”.
These characteristics could be heard in the final work, Schubert’s Piano Sonata No.21 in B flat major, D960. Pianists such as Alfred Brendel and Paul Lewis have used words such as “acceptance” and “serenity” to describe the work, says Angela Turner in her program notes, well worth reading for a detailed and comprehensible analysis of a long and complex work.
As for Cooper’s interpretation, it was simply beautiful to hear: calm, with a singing melody throughout, and dexterity that allowed the full harmonies to be appreciated, again at quite a pace. The final movement can be compared to Beethoven, Turner suggests, and this seems a fair comment. But the listener, like the pianist herself, could only be caught up in the exultant chords that dominated the piece as Cooper carried it towards its brilliant and entirely satisfying conclusion.