Schumann’s Birthday Celebrated by Imogen Cooper

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schumann, Liszt, and Wagner: Imogen Cooper (piano). St John’s, Smith Square, London, 8.6.2016 (MB)

Schumann – Geistervariationen in E-flat major, WoO 24
Schumann – Davidsbündlertänze, op.6
Liszt – Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième année (Italie), S.161: ‘Sposalizio’, ‘Il penseroso’, ‘Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa’, and ‘Sonetto 104 del Partrarca’
Wagner – Elegie, WWV 93
Wagner, arr. Kocsis – Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I
Liszt – La lugubre gondola, S200/1
Wagner, arr. Liszt – Isoldens Liebestod – Schlußszene aus Richard Wagners Tristan und Isolde, S447

The Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series came to a season close with Imogen Cooper, on Schumann’s birthday. The first half, not unreasonably, was devoted to Schumann’s music: never something about which I am likely to complain, and certainly not here. That said, I find the Geistervariationen disturbing music indeed, even when performed with such warmth of tone as on this occasion. Cooper gave the theme the nobility of late Beethoven; its simplicity is not entirely dissimilar either. The strangeness of the first variation disconcerted all the more. And so Schumann’s final work went its own strange way, but with a quiet, assured sense of purpose. Its flights of fancy continued to disturb, but the turn to the minor mode brought with it both an almost Classical self-justification and post-Schubertian poignancy. The return of the theme had it sound both the same as before and yet utterly transformed by experience, almost as if we had just heard the Goldbergs.

The Davidsbündlertänze followed, seemingly flowering in the wake of death yet to come. A veritable kaleidoscope of colours was to be heard even in the first piece, announcing a grand manner that not only suited the work surprisingly well but also laid some of the groundwork for Liszt in the second half. Cooper’s leaning into phrases and her weighting of them always intrigued and, far more often than not, satisfied. The second, marked ‘Innig’, sounded just so, with finely judged balance between the melodic and harmonic demands of inner voices. The third, however, sounded unduly deliberate to my ears, ultimately remaining earthbound, although its successor made amends, with a highly Romantic, even mercurial reading. I greatly enjoyed the semi-introverted charm of the fifth and the stark power of the sixth, after which the sadness, as well as the strength in sadness of the seventh suggested that this was truly the emotional heart of the work. Agility and impetuosity were the hallmark of its successor, although I sometimes wondered whether it might have yielded a little more. The tenth certainly did, and was all the better for it. As we neared the close, the splendidly judged heavy lilt of the thirteenth piece made its mark, and somehow we always knew – even if, rightly we were made to doubt this – that Eusebius would win out. So he did, of course; and so he should have done.

Liszt was the most generous of composers – in almost every sense. However, even he was known to use ‘leipzigerisch’ as a not entirely complimentary term with respect to Schumann and Mendelssohn. Nowadays, we are perhaps more inclined to hear what Liszt and Schumann, Wagner and Brahms, Berlioz and Mendelssohn had in common. At any rate, the second half, of Liszt and Wagner, offered both things in common and a good deal of contrast. I had not thought of Cooper in connection with Liszt before: my oversight, for she revealed herself to be very much my sort of Lisztian, one who takes Liszt’s music seriously, quite the antithesis of a shallow virtuoso.

‘Sposalizio’ brought strength and mystery in its opening bars, both with respect to mood and to thematic working out. Cooper brought an undeniable sense of narrative, with or without words (or images) to what we heard, in a distinguished performance. ‘Il penseroso’ was grief-laden, but Cooper never confused sentiment with sentimentality. Liszt’s extraordinary dissonances were not exaggerated; they seemed ‘simply’ to speak. It sounded, like its predecessor, as the visionary piece it is. I still do not quite understand what the ‘Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa’ is doing in such company – doubtless my problem – but it received a nicely jaunty performance, its sterner moments registering too. It actually made for an excellent context from which the 104th Petrarch Sonnet could emerge. Cooper had it do so without a break, in commanding fashion. This full-blooded performance balanced well the demands of the ‘public’ Liszt and interior eroticism.

Wagner’s Elegie is a fascinating miniature, serious indeed, clearly born not only from the world of the scandalously underrated Sonata for Mathilde Wesendonck, but also from the world of Tristan und Isolde itself. Its curious insistency here sounded not un-Lisztian. Likewise the Prelude to Act I of Tristan, in Zoltán Kocsis’s transcription. Its opening bars both melted and insisted, invited and warned. I remain ambivalent about the transcription itself; here I could not help but wonder what Liszt himself might have achieved. It was undeniably interesting, even provocative, to hear it, though. Cooper offered a performance of considerable cumulative power, a certain squareness to the arrangement notwithstanding. Instead of the Sailor’s Song for which it cried out, we heard still darker music; the first version of La lugubre gondola, issued forth. Venetian waters seemed to threaten to suspend rhythm as much as tonality; and yet, quite rightly, they did not succeed in either case. Here, again, was Liszt the visionary, but now the darkly embittered visionary of old age. If Wagner’s death beckoned there, we heard transfiguration in the so-called ‘Liebestod’ (Liszt’s fault, not Wagner’s). It sounded, resounded as a true conclusion to the arduous journey taken. Cooper offered great tonal beauty, but that was never the point. Her serious Lisztian credentials were furthered in her encore: the Fourth Mephisto Waltz. Its Mephistophelian character told – how could it not? – yet so did kinship with what had gone before: with Liszt and with Wagner. So too did anticipations of Bartók.

Mark Berry

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