With this Chandos release Imogen Cooper takes on the Lisztians. Typically though, befitting a pianist rarely content to tread in other people's shadows, she quietly sidesteps the pugilists, siding rather with the philosophers of the species. It's a certain kind of 'romantic' album that ends with rootless diminished sevenths leaving us suspended in the ether (Bagatelle sans tonalité); that muses so pensively – nineteen minutes – on Goethe's Gretchen; that indulges two time-capsules – fifteen minutes – of Tristan und Isolde. The nearest we get to popular are the four selections from the Italian leg of the Years of Pilgrimage. Even so their lyric and expressive focus – associated with Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin, Michelangelo's The Thinker and the limerence of Petrarch's Sonnet 104 – remains firmly within the inward and the intimate. For Cooper Liszt is about beauty of sound, the loneliness of visionary worlds, Fabergé-like caprice; it's about crystalline arpeggios and cut-glass chords, about trills that purl and tremble like fairy waterfalls at sunset. Base sensuality, extravagant rhetoric, bombastic assault she leaves to others.
The teasing élan, the Mephistophelian edge, of the opening and closing tracks (Deuxième Valse oubliée, 1883; Bagatelle sans tonalité, 1885) show a feeling for remembered embrace and rhythmic bite that doesn't disappoint. But it's in the sweep and generosity of the larger canvasses that Cooper especially excels. Among these the most completely satisfying has to be Liszt's own 1867 transcription of the second movement from A Faust Symphony. Balancing and pacing this pale chamber-textured A-flat tableau has defeated the best conductors – too fast and it loses wonderment, too slow and it loses fragility. Cooper weaves a delicately exquisite tapestry, dreamily soave, dolce, una corda, fusing nocturne, mood-state and “character-picture” in a temporal span reminiscent orchestrally of Beecham or Ferencsik, more recently Iván Fischer.
Exchanging Goethe's Germania for the Italy of the Grand Tour, 'Sposalizio' glows dolce armonioso, 'Il penseroso' looks to darker recesses, and 'Sonetto 104' fades on a note of wistfully drawn-out resignation – “I am in this state, lady, because of you”. Cooper considers architecturally, her paragraphing is spacious. But she also deals in chiselled detail. This is music she has read and lived with intimately: her three dry low C-sharps signing off 'Il penseroso' focus rightly, if only for two bars, on restoring tension and tempo, resisting any urge to continue the preceding ritardando.
For sheer atmosphere, line, cohesion and climax, 'Isolde’s Liebestod' is on a par with 'Gretchen'. Cooper spins a compelling tale, the interlacing of Liszt's vocal/orchestral transcription surging and soaring in waves of nuanced, pianistic sovereignty. The music rings to the heavens, spine-chillingly, before Isolde's final breath dies to an added bottom B, all seven octaves of the instrument 'open' harmonically, vibrating into silence. The late Zoltán Kocsis, the posthumous dedicatee of this album – “without whom”, Cooper says, she “might well have not started this journey” – published his version of the Act One Prelude in 1978. Though scarcely more than a reduction of the original, it works convincingly. Cooper, around a minute faster than the Hungarian's 1981 Philips release, delivers a masterclass in legato playing, voicing the trail-blazing cello line and woodwind 'Tristan chord' of the opening with stellar beauty. And in the very last bar (the cello/double bass pizzicato Gs) she returns to the precision timing and secco attack of 'Il penseroso', the opening of the B-minor Sonata ghosting the way. Question marks and consolation, Wagner's epigrammatic Elegie – thirteen bars written in Italy around 1858-59 but, according to his wife Cosima, Liszt's daughter, not finalised until 1882 – is a Tristan off-shoot, the home chord, A-flat, suspended until the very end. Richter used to play it, slowly.
In his twenties Liszt sowed his notes with abandon. In old age he settled for practically nothing, a single voice sufficing to carry a cosmos of emotions. Common throughout, though, was the harmonic agitator (long before Wagner), a high-Romantic who'd learnt his early way around keys and planetary distances from Beethoven and Schubert. Inhabiting an Indian summer twilight, late Liszt – crafting his augmented and diminished chords, his suspensions, substitutions and aggregations, his pivotal tones into a gallery of skeletal Middle European shadows and aphoristic landscapes, poetic images rooted more in water than soil – shocked the British conscience in 1951 when the Liszt Society published an overview designed to challenge the mind rather than fingers. Here, we were abruptly awoken, was a suddenly starker, more esoteric, side to Liszt the glitter-purveying populist beloved of salon trios and seaside pianists. Kentner, Fiorentino and the young Brendel promoted the cause. At his 1974 Proms debut Pollini carried the torch, as defiant a gesture as his programming beforehand of the Totentanz.
Two pieces from that September evening – Nuages gris and La lugubre gondola – find Cooper etching studies in charcoal, here flat-toned, there thrown into relief. Nuages gris (1881): a forty-eight-bar pre-Debussyian terrain in piano, tremulous bass, thirteen rising chromatic octaves, two rallentando chords to close, more en route than arrived. Neige dure. The musings of a man who four years earlier had declared himself “desperately and completely incapable of finding a single ray of happiness.” La lugubre gondola (1882): a broader sheaf of thoughts, looking to the funeral gondolas of Venice's Grand Canal, its polar extremities obsessed with the note A-flat, the sepulchral chamber of Beethoven's Opus 26 Sonata. Ondulations grises. “Budding insanity”, Wagner fancied.
Production values (Rachel Smith), engineering (Jonathan Cooper), and the preferred choice of a Steinway (Hamburg 2007) of median rather than massive sonority, glassy in its upper register, backlight Cooper's unforced conception of Liszt. Similarly the booklet essay by Conor Farrington, who brings a timely fresh voice to Lisztian scholarship. But on the subject of Liszt being “the first to place the piano in the optimum position on the platform”, right-angle to the audience, Cooper ought to have double-checked her source, Alan Walker. It was not Liszt but Dussek, a generation before, documented by Tomášek, who did so – "in which [fashion] our pianoforte heroes now all follow ... though they may have no very interesting profile [or hands] to exhibit.”