Imogen Cooper Offers Unique Pianistic Experience in Schubert’s Final Sonatas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Imogen Cooper, Wigmore Hall, London, 19.10.2013  (GD)

Piano Sonata in C minor D958
Piano Sonata in A major D959
Piano Sonata in B flat major D960


It is quite amazing to think that Schubert’s late piano sonatas were composed only a few years after Beethoven’ late works in this form, the latter emphasising economy and concision. Schubert’s works are still in the ‘classical’ Viennese tradition, but they are far more expansive, not so much in duration, as in tonal layout, and a sonata dialectic, where the narrative form  is overlaid by ‘land-scape’ like and contrasting  sequences of lyricism and often highly chromatic, dramatic tonal shifts and outbursts. Cooper delivered these fantastic contrasts in a wonderfully perceptive fashion whilst at the same time always reminding us that all this is still contained in classical sonata form.

The C minor opening bars of D 958 were immediate and arresting, emphasising the diminished fifth and a rhythmic pattern which informs this late sonata trio. Also the closeness to the theme from Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor was made clearer than in most performances. Cooper’s articulation of  the inevitable transtion into the song-like second theme in E flat major had an almost haunting quality in its radiant lyricism, light years removed from the terse opening theme. Although Cooper played the dramatic lead-back repeat in this C minor Sonata, for some reason she excluded the repeats in the following two sonatas. The development section, with its daring and incessant semiquaver (sixteenth note) figurations, and the extended coda, with its eerie transition from C major to C minor, made their dramatic and strange effect more convincingly than any performance I have heard recently. Cooper’s mastery of juxtaposition and mood/ change continued in the contrast between the opening A flat melody and the grim tension of the second episode of the Adagio, with its daring hamonics and modulations. The shifting stresses and rhythms of the Menuetto were perceptively realised, as was the whole mood of the movement with brusque interruptions and sudden pauses. This pianistic perception sustained itself into the rondo finale with its incessant ‘riding rhythm’ and tonal excursions into such remote keys as G major and E flat major. Altogether a unique pianistic experience

The same qualities described above were there in Cooper’s rendition of Schubert’s last two sonatas. Cooper has the almost unique ability to project a dazzling clarity without ever succumbing to exhibitionistic virtuosity for it own sake. I say ‘almost’, as Rudolf Serkin had a similar ability in his prime. But  Cooper can also register a richness of tone not always available to Serkin. This amazing clarity was evident in the opening rhythmic gesture of the D 959, which constitutes the rhythmic/dynamic imprint of the whole movement. And what wonderful strength and elegance in the following arpeggios in triplets! The recapitulation and coda, still haunted by the oscillations of  C major and B Major from the development section, sounded wonderfully ‘natural’ and inevitable. In the F sharp minor Andantino Cooper demonstrated that the unique ‘poetic tragedy’ of the music can sound utterly convincing at a tempo that does not drag. This reminded me of the wonderful early 40’s recording from the great German/Latvian pianist Eduard Erdmann, now known mostly to specialists and collectors The amazingly original harmonies and chromatic contortions of the shattering middle section had all the frisson and shock effect imaginable. But it always remained musical, never histrionic.  The magical waltz – like strains of the Scherzo, with a beautifully ‘sung’ trio, and the lyrical effusiveness of the Rondo finale, with its subtle references to the earlier A minor Sonata, D 537, followed on with a compellingy beautiful,  but sustained and flowing inevitability.

All the much commented upon ‘flowing lyricism’ of Schubert’s last Sonata in B flat D 960, was there, Cooper projecting all the richness of harmony one has come to associate with this ‘valedictory’ late work. But when we reached the F sharp minor of the second theme Cooper made us more aware than usual of the darker side to this work –  in some ways not far removed from the darker tones Clara Haskil used to bring to this music in concert, and in her various recordings of the sonata.  This darker, more arrestingly dramatic tone was extended into the C sharp minor of the develoment section linking up wth the low G flat trills just before the coda’s final chords.If I have one criticism of Cooper’s reading of this movement it is to do with the tempo she chose. Surely ‘Molto moderato” denotes a more flowing tempo here and more movement? Arthur Schnabel used to play this movement with plenty of flow and  forward projection – and it sounded just right. But despite this criticism Cooper’s rendition was still profoundly impressive in its own way.  In contrast to the opening movement  Cooper demonstrated that  playing the  Andante sostenuto as marked scores in terms structure and balance with the rest of the sonata, also allowing a degree of underlying intensity in the opening C sharp minor. The haunting A major lyricism of the middle section sustained the movement’s melodic invention with Cooper inflecting the poetic pathos residing just on the surface of the music. The above comments on Cooper’s rendition of the last two movements of D 959 equally apply here; the delicate lightness of the Scherzo, and the tonal ambiguities of the rondo finale between onward impulse and sadly tender lyricism all superbly realised.

I thought it was a good idea of Cooper’s two have two intervals to give the audience time to reflect on this unique music – and also, no doubt, to allow herself adequate time to prepare and  engage with the mood of each sonata.

Geoff Diggines