Britten Sinfonia Imogen Cooper – Webern, Haydn & Beethoven

Five Movements, Op.5
Symphony No.88 in G
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37

Imogen Cooper (piano & director) [Beethoven]

Britten Sinfonia [Jacqueline Shave – leader & director]

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 9 February, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

There was no gentle ‘ease-in’ to this concert: by opening with Webern’s Five Movements (Opus 5), the Britten Sinfonia ensured that ears were immediately focused, concentration levels raised to maximum. The performance was sensitive, taught, and gripping: real edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Imogen CooperHaving grabbed its audience’s attention, the conductor-less Britten Sinfonia (Jacqueline Shave a dynamic leader) ensured that it was maintained to the highest degree with a vibrant account of Haydn’s Symphony No.88 – one of his most contrast-packed and appealing. Parted in the middle by woodwinds, the strings made a rich sound belying their chamber-numbers. The players were also nimble, dashing through Haydn’s quicksilver passages with flair and precision. Though centre-stage, the woodwinds avoided turning the work into a concerto, but made the most of Haydn’s characterful writing and mellifluous solo lines. Flute and oboe, especially, delighted in the iridescent Largo (where a conductor’s hand might have provided a little more shape and hint of momentum to the immaculately controlled phrases). A pungent tang of the countryside was brought out in the rustic Trio-section of the broad, sweeping Minuet, followed by an ebullient finale bristling with energy and sparkle.

Quite why Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 was less satisfying is hard to explain. Maybe expectations had been raised impossibly high by the barnstorming first-half; undoubtedly the more recessed conventional positioning behind the piano dulled the orchestral sound somewhat, particularly winds and brass; and Imogen Cooper made a few too many finger-slips for comfort. Another reason could be a disparity of approaches between Cooper (credited with directing) and orchestra – although this was hard to tell because Cooper rarely showed any sign of direct control.

However, there was much to enjoy. Cooper conjured a beautiful tone from the Steinway – breathtakingly so at the unaccompanied start of the central Largo (marred, however, by three consecutive pedal fluffs, fatally smudging the chords), which conveyed a special poise. The turbulent first movement had never really caught fire, though; nor was it sufficiently weighty. But the music finally came to life in the finale, Cooper seeming to find her confidence at last: the rapid-fire passagework was brilliant and sensitively tailored, the performance carrying a conviction and vivid sense of drama that had been lacking earlier.

  • Concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 11 February at 7 p.m.
  • Britten Sinfonia

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