A Memorable Schumann Chopin Recital from Imogen Cooper

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Chopin: Imogen Cooper (piano), Wigmore Hall, 13.2.2015. (GD)

Schumann: Humoresque Op.20
Novelletten Op 21
No. 8 in F minor
No. 2 in D
Chopin: Barcarolle Op. 60
Nocturne in E flat Op. 55
Fantasy in F minor Op. 49
Two Nocturnes Op. 62:  No. 1 in B;  No, 2 in E
Ballade No. 1 in G minor Op. 23


This recital was entitled ‘Parallel Paths’, and there is much to write about here.  Indeed a large corpus of discourse already exists not only on the two composers’ cultural interrelationships, but also on the way they influenced each other in terms of creative development. As usual with Cooper the recital was excellently composed, including both more well known works, and those which rarely get a hearing. Indeed it is amazing to think that the great Humoresque of Schumann is still relatively neglected.

 I must admit to not being very familiar with Cooper in Chopin, associating her more with Mozart and Schubert.  But this lack was the condition for a treasured opening up of my musical, interpretative experience, an experience enhanced by Cooper’s wonderful sense of comparison and contrast. It was a well attended occasion, with groups of people coming in a few minutes late. But as soon as Cooper appeared, with applause over, there was complete silence. And then, with the  three opening forte bars of the Chopin Barcarolle the atmosphere was transformed. Cooper timed the transition to the cradle-like barcarolle rhythm with consummate pianistic finesse. As many commentators have noted, the piece is a spacious nocturne, with a new intensity in the central section. This and the dazzling harmonies of the coda, so admired by Ravel, were beautifully contoured by Cooper. Similarly,  in the Nocturne in E flat Op.55 No. 2,  the duet-like passages for right hand rhythmically difficult for many pianists, sounded wonderfully spontaneous and compelling.

 Schumann’s Humoresque is noted for being full of musical contrast, irony and paradox. The initial irony is that although the work is set in B flat major, it is mostly in that key’s relative  of G minor. Many have claimed that it is Schumann’s most ambitious work for solo piano. It seems to be generally agreed that, even more than Kreisleriana, it is full contrasts, sometimes extreme contrasts and moods. States of musical irony frequently break through in the work’s seven sections with scurrying scales, rhythms so wayward that the listener rapidly loses  bearing and sense of musical continuity, although there is an  underlying emotional unity which prevents the music from disintegrating into the merely episodic. Many have discerned various hidden codes/messages: the second main section features a mysterious ‘inner voice’ on the extra middle stave.

 The cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, who usually writes about politics and psychoanalysis, has devoted several essays to the music of Robert Schumann in which he attempts to define what he sees (or hears)  as ‘unique’. Basically Zizek focuses on a kind of ‘double discourse” He notes a dialectic in which a protean range of themes, melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, are subtended by aporetic silences ( ‘sphinxes’ as the composer called them) and music from another register ( almost a musical take on Freud’s famous description of the unconscience as ‘the other scene’), which Zizek talks of in terms the Unheimlich (uncanny) and Phantasmic. And, as music theorist and philosopher Adorno (also Zizek) noted, we must be aware of Schumann’s own mental condition, that he was literally struggling to retain his own sanity from around the time of Kreisleriana.

 Unlike the more ‘classical’ interpretations of Kempf and Schiff (superb in their own terms) Cooper really emphasised the  bi-polarity of the music. The first piece bears the heading ‘Einfach’, and when Cooper spins the first lyrical arc over the descending quavers of the accompaniment, the effect was of uncontrived simplicity. But already the middle section, ‘sehr rasch und leicht’, grows restless, at least where the bass notes burst in with powerful accents throwing the contours into high relief. In the absence of a single or even an underlying mood, the thematic ideas cut loose from one another – but return as reminiscencies, traces, mutable quotations, variations on the beginning: almost like the thematic strands of a great novel in which nothing is ever totally lost or over and done with. Cooper managed these memories or ‘traces’ with an almost haunting empathy – and generally, not just in Schumann,

 Cooper is uncompromising in the power she can project; I am thinking here also of the ‘powerful accents’ mentioned above. And those ‘inner voices’ almost sound as if from the ‘grave’ in Cooper’s hands. In contrast to a work like Carnaval  Humoresque is dominated by transitions, and transitional structure (if it can so be called?) was the hallmark of Cooper’s rendition. She was undaunted by Schumann’s most intricate musical structures. When she played  the seemingly static, limpid ‘Einfach und zart’ of the third section, no undertones were initially perceptible. The crotchets sustained by the pedal did not over-inflate the sound; even where the subject is doubled in the octave;  the mood remained leisurely and measured. I was taken aback at the way the naturalness with which the ritardandi curb the the tempo just slightly, and there was nothing heavy about the stationary notes.Then in the ‘Intermezzo’, earthy humour intrudes on the ‘Romantic bliss’. With Cooper the concluding and contrasting  march-like Mit einigem Pomp, Adagio (melting away) and the concluding ‘abrupt’  Allegro sounded – paradoxically- both unified and bizarre in terms of extreme contrast and almost violent finality.

 Cooper next played two of the Novelletten Op. 21 beginning with No.8 in F minor, the last and culminating movement of the cycle. It is also the longest casting a whole variety of temperaments. From the powerfully stated first theme to the trio, with its poetic manifestations of a ‘voice from afar’, and then on to the wonderfully emphatic driving chords of the finale Cooper compellingly captured all these contrasts and temperaments. She was brilliant in the straining of the virtuoso semiquaver passages, pensive in the soft transitions of the middle section and assertive in the finale. She was equally brilliant in the grateful Bravura writing of Novellette No. 2 in D, utilising the many thumb repetitions with dazzling ease and virtuosity.

 The Fantasy in F minor, Op. 49, of Chopin is still quite rarely played. It is from 1841, with an opening rousing but solemn march theme, followed by a passionate virtuoso section with traces of the march theme. A mid section with a sombre chorale-section. and a short lyrical section before the final major key bold flourish were all compellingly delivered by Cooper demonstrating her ability to contrast the most brilliant virtuoso playing with the more introspective and rhetorical lyrical sections.

 The two Nocturnes Op. 62 were so empathetically contoured by Cooper, making me hope that she will record the complete Nocturnes. The competition on record is very sharp, with the likes of Maria Joao Pires, Pollini, and Nelson Freire. But her phrasing of the first Opus. 62 with its free rhythmic structure and magical contrast between the upper and lower voices was most alluring. Similarly alluring was Op. 62 No. 2, with its broad cantilena played with the outer fingers, the intense and agitated middle section, and the melting melodies of the poetic coda.

 Cooper ended the recital with the famous first Chopin Ballade in G minor. The First Ballade is played more frequently, as an encore, or separate piece, than the other three Ballades, probably because it is constructed more like a continuous narrative than the others. Cooper relished the contrast between the quite remote keys of A major and A minor in the first and second theme, and the way both themes take on a  new passionate and intense character in the quasi development  just before the recapitulation.  In the coda section (Presto con fuoco) Cooper played with great power and intensity, almost reminding me of Beethoven.

 After coming out several times to acknowledge the applause Cooper declined to give an encore, quite understandable after such a demanding and contrasted recital. It will stay in my memory for many years.



Geoff Diggines.












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