Stylish Schubert from Imogen Cooper

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schubert: Imogen Cooper, Wigmore Hall, London, 7.2.2013 (GD)

Four Impromptus D 899
Piano Sonata in A minor D 784
Twelve Ecossaises D 781
Piano Sonata in D major D 850

From the first arresting unison in G of the first Impromptu Cooper projected a remarkable empathy with Schubert’s soundscape of lyricism and drama. She communicated a sense of all the tonal shifts and contrasts with a sound musicality and an assured pianistic technique,  as in the way she articulated the haunting first unaccompanied  melody in the right hand firmly in the dominant until a cadence in C minor. With Cooper nothing seemed underlined; the melody remaining in the same register throughout, naturally leading into the A flat middle section. Her broadening of tempo here had an inevitability which matched the  contouring of the extended conclusion section with its dialectic of major and minor flowing beautifully into the resigned C major of the coda.  Much the same can be said of the following E flat major Impromptu with its virtuoso writing for the right hand. Cooper managed the turn to B minor in the central section, and the contrasting lyricism and strong rhythms of the coda, with consummate mastery. The G flat Andante  of the third Impromptu (used in Michael Hanekes’s recent film ‘Amour’ so effectively) was projected with a luminosity and glow I have rarely heard. The gently rippling accompanient to the sonorous main theme and the transition into enchanting conclusion, beginning in G flat major, came across as sheer pianistic poetry. Cooper instilled the concluding Impromptu in A flat major with all the finesse and delicacy of expression the music demands. Of special note here was the way in which she contrasted the dominantly right hand fiurations of the main melody with the warm harmonies of the Trio section. Throughout the recital Cooper deployed discreet but very effective pedalling.

Schubert’s A minor Sonata D 784 is one of his most dramatic and bleak compositions. Its turbulent trills and dark dynamics are redolent of the earlier ‘Erlkonig’ song and the later Quartet in G major. Like  these two works the tone of the Walpurgisnacht is never far away.  Initially I thought Cooper’s tempo too slow for the opening  movement marked Allegro giusto, but she soon won me over  with her concentration and firm grasp of tempo (implied in the marking ‘giusto’) as well as her uncompromising traversal of this movement’s most dramatic elements. This was ‘magisterial’ in the way we used to describe Klemperer’s conducting; broadly paced, but never dragging.  Of special note was the way Cooper articulated the startling contrasts of dynamics and tonality: the benign tone of the songful second subject in E major, and the way in which this gives way to the dotted rhythmic challenges of the concentrated development section, and also in the recapitulation, with the subtle re-thinking and re-ordering of the opening ideas, with all the minor key shadows finally dissolved into the serenity of A major. The idyllic song-theme of the Fmajor Andante was inflected with all the warmth and lyricism Cooper is especially noted for.

Later, after a brief but trenchant eruption of passion,  the tracery of right-handed triplets, recalling the opening theme, were as magical as I have ever heard them. The little ppp ‘asides’ which punctuate the the main song theme, giving the movement much of its inspired unpridictability, were perceptively intoned by Cooper.  The concluding Allegro vivace, back in A minor, is a rondo dominated by dark and ominous triplets. Cooper marvellously contrasted this grim urgency with the lilting dance of the second subject with its full toned Viennese inflections. The darker, more dramatic tones of the conclusion and coda featured a powerful A minor reminder that unlike the first movement there is no final consolation.

After Cooper’s typically spirited and mercurial rendition of the ecossaises with their galloping dynamics and quick two beats in the bar dance rhtyhms she launched straight into the D major sonata without a pause, attacca style. This sonata has been the subject of much commentary: Robert Schumann was perplexed by the ‘naivete’ of the rondo finale, and Chopin admired its ‘orchestral’ textures. The late Clifford Curzon made a perceptive point when he likened the brilliance of the keyboard writing with its’unison passages of unceasing movement interspersed with leaps and hand-crossings’ to the lucidity and elegance of Scarlatti. Also the sonata has been generally seen as among Schubert’s most brilliant and extrovert works. Although it has little of the dark drama of the other late sonatas. Cooper played the opening tonic chords with considerable dramatic impact, very different from say Brendel’s more introspective approach. And she maintainted a real Allegro vivace throughout the movement. In the bold B flat development section the ‘orchestral’ qualities were more resonant than in most performances I have heard with the effect of joyous horn calls. The rushing torrents and virtuoso brilliance of the coda were here certainly delivered with brilliance and virtuosity, but never a virtuosity which calls attention to itself as virtuosity. The con moto second movement in A major takes the form of a beautifully songful rondo. Again horn calls (albeit  more subdued) were resonant. Cooper was particularly compelling in the way she gradated the long passages of syncopated chords with their harmonic shifts towards the middle section. The coda, with its fragmented reworking of the main melody was poetically moving. The Scherzo, with its rhythmic complications involving rapid tonal shifts and counterposing 3/4 and 3/2 metric turns found Cooper in her element. She was particularly persuasive in the way she shaped the strong syncopations of the Ländler and Walz sections, giving the music an unmistakable Viennese charm. And the G major trio flowed with a warm lyricism.  Everything about the rondo finale, back in the home key of D major, cohered impressively with whole sonata. Cooper brought a charming lilt to the opening ‘tick tock’ background rhythm which some have compared to  Schubertian Marche militaire. There is only one dark passage here, when the main melodic material develops quite abrubtly into a turbulent G minor middle section. This was played with real drama tonight. But Cooper contrasted this wonderfully with the beautifully hushed coda which recalls the opening rondo theme on a note of gentle ambiguity.


Geoff Diggines