Hampstead & Highgate Festival 2007: Imogen Cooper

Sonata in C, Hob.XVI/50
Sonata in A, Op.101
Impromptus, D935

Imogen Cooper (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 16 May, 2007
Venue: St John-at-Hampstead, Church Row, London, NW3

We began with an interloper. Originally the first item was to have been a Mozart sonata (in A minor, K310), but it was withdrawn due to “unforeseen circumstances”! The Haydn was, however, a welcome substitute. Its inclusion changed the character of the evening, giving a fascinating insight into the art and skill of devising a programme.

The Mozart, impassioned and intense, was written on the death of Mozart’s mother. Dark, throbbing emotion threatens to burst through the boundaries of classical form. The Beethoven sonata has dark moments, too. Until the finale, a fugue, it is also – purposefully – experimental, in jagged fragments.

The Haydn – possibly the last of his piano sonatas – is written by a man in his early 60s (elderly by 18th-century standards). It is light-hearted, impish, skittish and witty –throwing out musical ideas with insouciance and panache. In the first movement, a terse theme dominates, brief and striking, of fugal character. Rather like Mr Punch, the theme appears and reappears, suddenly and unexpectedly. The rondo-finale is in similar vein, while the Adagio provides repose – grave, settled, more conventional.

All this Imogen Cooper played with evident glee and lightness of touch, relishing the music’s sparkle and placing her tongue in her cheek in much the same way as the composer probably did. This was Haydn-performnce of a high order. Rarely do we hear his works played with such distinction and sympathetic regard for their idiosyncrasies.

Beethoven’s extraordinary A major Sonata is also mercurial. Its opening suggested we were about to hear something soft and romantic. Then the quirkiness began – a vigorous awkwardness, non-stop. Beethoven’s inventiveness proves to be a riot of ideas. The march is perfunctorily grotesque. The slow movement fragment suggests that a permanent depth underlies the romantic ardour, posturing and absurdity of life’s colourful surfaces. The fugue is a torrent of white-hot jubilation. Imogen Cooper’s grip on the music was masterly. With striking insight, she pinpointed the delight in idiosyncracy that Haydn and Beethoven had in common, while distinguishing between Haydn’s lighter, headier wit and Beethoven’s more impassioned drive.

The Schubert was no less distinguished. With the great skill and artistry that is the hallmark of this remarkable pianist, Imogen Cooper took us on a journey through the various worlds of Schubert’s inspiration – an extended, serious movement in sonata form, a chordal utterance with a scurrying middle section, undemanding Variations on a theme from his “Rosamunde” music and a rapid finale of great dash. Unexpected moments suddenly appeared and vanished – the occasional shadow, the tear brushed aside, the gentle sigh and even the occasional chortle.

For a generous encore, we were whirled into waltz-time with Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” (in Percy Grainger’s ‘Ramble’ on same?). Thus ended our Viennese evening, leaving all who attended in no doubt that Imogen Cooper is one of our most distinguished and sensitive pianists.

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