Iberia y Francia
Imogen Cooper (piano)

Recorded 25-28 March 2019 in the Concert Hall, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, England
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 20119
Duration: 77 minutes
Reviewed: September 2019

Outwardly sweet-toothed, inwardly thoughtful, a take on music's enduring Gallic-Iberian love affair. For Roger Nichols in his booklet essay a case historically of reciprocal “French control and Spanish abandon.” For Imogen Cooper a mosaic of connections “more felt than proven, more fanciful than serious … an inner amalgam of my French student past [she studied in Paris with Février and Lefébure] and my new love and knowledge of the Catalonian coast.”

Ravel's 1899 piano original of Pavane pour une infante défunte defeats the best players. It's not so much difficult as awkward, challenging mood and atmospheric sonority as much as articulation and cantabile voicing. More often than not it ends up in disengaged chords and fragmented notes bereft of pulse and line. Prone to exposing weaknesses before strengths, opening an album with it is arguably foolhardy. Cooper proves otherwise. Her legato, texturing and velvet sonorities generate a landscape of grave beauty, paced and unhurried. Refusing to rush, allowing time and air, colour and depth their own continuum, ebbing and flowing, pays dividends throughout the thirteen subsequent pieces.

Preceded by Falla's guitar-derived Homenaje to Debussy, held chastely in amber, 'La soirée dans Grenade' from Debussy's Estampes is immaculately judged, a habanera now close, then far. Four numbers from Albéniz's texturally complex Iberia, full of chiselled melody, gravitational harmony, allusion, languor and sighing codas beneath warm night skies, show a nurtured flair for the style. Not so much travel postcards as rediscovered diaries and confessions. Like the long farewell of 'Évocation', the slower pages of 'Fête-dieu à Seville' cherish rather than sentimentalise nostalgia, the lontaine fragility and beauty all-consuming, the wide-octave 'Spanish' spacing and sanctified low chording stilling the World. 'Rumores de la Caleta' (No.6 of Recuerdos de viaje) is veiled: the guitar-like, Phrygian exoticism of the Homeric south.

“Stumbling across a ruined organ, pipes and keys open to the elements. Falling for a slip of a girl playing the piano across a mulberried garden. Casino songs. Midnight tangos.” Words from a book long ago. If I warm more especially to the poetic intimacies of this release – half-Catalan, half-French, Mompou's Canción y Danza No.1 is a little masterpiece of mood, phrasing and sign-off – this is not to detract from the many showcase pages offsetting them. True, modern pyro-technicians find greater cut-glass dimension, more bravura tartness, in Ravel's 'Alborada del gracioso' (from Miroirs) and Debussy's L'Isle joyeuse, but Cooper brings to the table a wine of vintage and body, a mellowed maturity, a sudden tang, frequently to be preferred.

High production standards (Rachel Smith, Jonathan Cooper), a luminously engineered Steinway crystalline in its upper register, and Snape's inimitable ambience add the final touch.

 

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