United Kingdom Purcell, Beethoven, Brahms: Imogen Cooper (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor), Barbican Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 23.9. 2015 (AS)
Purcell (arr. Stucky) – Funeral Music for Queen Mary
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C, Op. 15
Brahms – Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Over the course of a long career Imogen Cooper has evolved from being just another young British pianist into an artist who is internationally admired for her interpretation of Austro-German Classical and early Romantic repertoire. Her fine qualities were very much in evidence during the performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. She showed a remarkable ability to bring out and blend the slightly ambiguous qualities of this work – its basic Classical qualities rooted in the tradition of Mozart and his time, and a more forward looking, expressive style of composition. Her playing in the first movement had an attractive crispness of execution, with elegant phrasing and piquant rhythms: every phrase came to life vividly. In the middle Largo movement Cooper showed her outstanding ability to maintain tension and momentum in music that has a slow pulse. This and her beautifully turned phrasing combined to create a reading of this movement that gave rare pleasure. The last movement had a quality of uplifting joyousness that provided both effective contrast with what had gone before and a satisfying conclusion to a most stimulating performance. Cooper was given admirably sympathetic and sensitive support by Haitink and the LSO.
his outstanding musical experience provided much relief from what had taken place earlier. The advertised programme details (reproduced in the heading above), had suggested that the concert would commence with a performance of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary in an arrangement by the American composer Steven Stucky, but this was not quite so. In fact Stucky’s 1992 effort is a ten-minute re-composition of just parts of Purcell’s music, with the chorus eliminated and scored for a large wind band supplemented by assorted percussion, a piano and a harp. Parts of this version sounded reasonably like Purcell, but others most certainly didn’t, because Stucky could not resist adding various twentieth-century harmonic tinges and elements of exotic colouring from time to time. These were presumably what the composer described as “… certain moments ‘drifting out of focus’”. Stucky has described his “arrangement” as looking at Purcell’s music “through the lens of 300 intervening years”. Alas that lens is very distorted.
It must surely have been Haitink’s wish to have this monstrous aberration included in his concert, but for this listener it was not only wasted playing time but also involved tiresomely lengthy platform changes: for instance the orchestral pianist John Alley (who was not mentioned in the list of players) had a minor part in Stucky’s piece, but the piano he used had to be removed and then replaced by another instrument for the concerto.
In the concert’s second half Haitink offered a faithful, entirely straightforward account of Brahms’s First Symphony. Everything was perfectly in place; there were no expressive departures from the norm, all the tempi were conventional and just as they should be, and the performance had structural integrity. Just occasionally one wished for a little relaxation, a little unexpected turn of phrase somewhere, but this is not Haitink’s way. Unvarnished Brahms it may have been, but it was a satisfying reading of the great work.