Schumann Provides the Highlight in Imogen Cooper’s Rather Mixed Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček , Schumann, Falla, Debussy, Albeniz: Imogen Cooper (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 17.11.2016. (AS)

Janáček – On an overgrown path, Book 1 – No.4, ‘The Madonna of Frydek’; No.5, ‘They chattered like swallows’; No.10, ‘The barn owl hasn’t flown away’
SchumannDavidsbündlertänze Op.6
Debussy – Estampes No.2, ‘La soirée dans Grenade’; Préludes, Book II – No.3, ‘La Puerto del vino’
Albéniz – Iberia, Book III – No.1, ‘El Albaicín’; Book I

The titling above is strictly accurate, but may be confusing, so it might be helpful to explain the programme’s structure. The first half comprised the big Schumann work preceded by the  three brief Janáček pieces; in the second half Imogen Cooper played the Falla, Debussy and Albeniz’s ‘El Albaicín’ as a “Spanish” group, followed as a separate entity by the complete Iberia, Book I.

The mostly simple little Janáček pieces, neatly played, comprised an effective recital opener – an exercise to settle both the audience and pianist in preparation for the greater demands of Schumann’s formidable set of 18 pieces. This wonderful and perhaps slightly under-regarded work poses great technical, emotional and intellectual challenges. Strangely it was once or twice in the quieter and simpler passages that wrong notes appeared, but generally Cooper’s technique, never quite as rock-like as many of her colleagues, coped well with the physical difficulties. But there was no doubting her interpretative insight into Schumann’s inspiration. Her playing possessed a very different character from her acutely sensitive, inward-looking style in the big works of Schubert. Her Schumann had a rhythmically strong, emphatic nature, the phrasing slightly deliberate and angular, with inner voices brought out strongly and some chords deliberately spread. She perceived the composer’s hard edge, his strength of character, a world away from mistaken impressions of him as a fallible dreamer. In all this there were distinct echoes of the way the Clara Schumann pupils Fanny Davies and Adelina de Lara played this work, as preserved on record. It is known that Cooper has listened to recordings by seminal pianists of the past: maybe the Clara Schumann performing tradition has been absorbed in her interpretative vision. It certainly seemed to be the case.

Cooper is not strongly acquainted with the traditional Spanish school of pianists, it would seem. The strange little Falla piece, originally written for guitar as a tribute to the then recently deceased Debussy, flowed quite nicely, and Debussy’s own ‘Soirée dans Grenade’ had plenty of atmosphere, but in ‘La puerto del vino’ a certain over-emphatic bumpiness in the repeated bass figure emerged, and there was a lack of fluidity in the phrasing. Cooper’s Albéniz was characterised by tempi which tended to be on the slow side and with the Spanish rhythms too often interrupted by undue expressive effects – a rather traditional Anglo-Saxon habit. The final piece from Iberia, Book I – ‘Fête-dieu à Séville’, was badly pulled out of shape, with accents in the wrong places, and wild tempo fluctuations.  It was a sad piece of over-interpretation.

Alan Sanders

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