Illuminating Psychological Perceptions from Imogen Cooper

United StatesUnited States Schumann, Liszt, and Wagner: Imogen Cooper (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.5.2016. (BJ)

Schumann: Geistervariationen, WoO 24; Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6

Liszt: from Années de Pèlerinage, Book II, Italie: Sposalizio, Il Penseroso, Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa, Sonetto 104 del Petrarca; La lugubre gondola I

Wagner: Elegie; from Tristan und Isolde: Prelude, arr. Zoltán Kocsis; Elegie; from Tristan und Isolde: Liebestod, arr. Liszt

Sometimes it is not the actual notes that make the most important impact in a performance. Under Imogen Cooper’s unfailingly skillful and sensitive hands, the notes in this stimulatingly programmed recital emerged beautiful enough in all conscience. But from the very beginning, with the darkly brooding Geistervariationen—the last piano work Schumann wrote, and one of the most rarely heard today—followed by the composer’s much earlier and contrastingly exhilarating Davidsbündlertänze, the most arresting aspect of her playing was the sense it aroused of her profoundly sympathetic understanding of Schumann’s no less profoundly complex personality. This was indeed Schumann (and Eusebius, and Florestan) as he so brilliantly—but in the end so sadly—lived and breathed.

So it was equally striking that, with the first notes of Sposalizio after intermission—even though this piece might be thought not dissimilar in its meditative mood from Schumann’s quieter inspirations—the pianist instantly established the crucial difference between the introvert character of the one composer and the confidently outward-looking nature of the other, highlighting the latter in due course with the sheer panache of his Sonetto 104 del Petrarca. Yet Liszt was, if I may put it this way, only superficially superficial, as his eventual withdrawal from the flashy career of touring virtuoso made clear.

His highly innovative later works, which often border on atonality, plumb depths no less intensely personal than Schumann’s. Sandwiched between arrangements of the Tristan und Isolde Prelude and Liebestod, the searchingly introspective La lugubre gondola provided another fresh insight into the expressive and technical range of this endlessly fascinating composer. And the late Liszt’s still more exploratory Mephisto Waltz No. 4 was itself a brilliant choice as Ms. Cooper’s encore, for this elusively skittering piece cleared the air invigoratingly after the perfumed intensity of Wagner’s egocentric navel-gazing.

Through all of these juxtapositions, moreover, thanks to Ms. Cooper’s polished technique and keenly expressive humanity, musical values may have been matched but were never obscured by the illuminating psychological perceptions adumbrated in these brief comments.

Bernard Jacobson


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