This recital had something of the music society about it an evening for the pianists family and friends. Unlike recent Purcell Room recitals by Danny Driver and Jill Crossland, where supporters were equally evident, one didnt sense Neil Cooneys audience listened especially intently or critically; partly a concomitant of Cooneys likeable if circumspect renditions. Such a lightweight audience was also prone to be distracting often the air crackled as the single sheet of paper masquerading as a programme was referred to Debussy and Ravel, Chopin even, do not yet seem standard repertoire. Then add in the sound of shoe-on-floor from a near-neighbour when something toe-tapping came along (rarely was appendage and pianist in sync though) and the lady, an exhaustive applauder, who rustled her paper hanky at regular intervals. I left before a couple of Liszt pieces concluded the evening.
The accepting and partisan members of this audience may not understand the following. In a nutshell, Neil Cooney is a talented and relaxed performer. His repertoire is well-learnt and honestly played. He does indeed, pace the publicity, have his poetical side and plays with welcome delicacy and sensitivity. He unfolded Schuberts A major sonata (D664) naturally and with thoughtful dynamics; classical, lightly touched but glossing over the ennui that impinge even this seemingly untroubled work. (Driver gave a more interesting interpretation.) Ravels Valses nobles et sentimentales was painstakingly accurate without enquiring into the musics sub-surface, the demonstrative opening matter-of-fact. It would be idle to suggest that Cooney is a literal performer, but he doesnt seem to want to stray too far from a composers notation. The first set of Debussys Images also enjoyed a sympathetic response, a persuasive directness for Hommage à Rameau (if a need to expand later went unheeded) countered by a rather tepid Mouvement.
Three Mazurkas, the C sharp minor Scherzo and F minor Ballade all suggested that Chopins music doesnt course through Cooneys veins. This was nice Chopin playing, somewhat strict, ultimately generalised, Cooneys likeable traits not sufficient to take the music into a dimension of its own. Technically easeful overall, Cooney was slightly taxed in the more transcendental passages of the scherzo and ballade.
Cooney appears to be a middle-ground musician respectful and pleasing, rather than searching and individual. His tact and aesthetic sensibility are his calling card and appreciated as such and which should be the envy of some bigger-name pianists. It seems though, at the moment, that Cooney should be keening the spirit of the music he plays rather than smoothly delivering its letter.