4 Impromptus, D899
German Dances, D790
Piano Sonata in A minor, D784
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960
Imogen Cooper (piano)
Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter
Reviewed: 8 December, 2009
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Imogen Cooper has outstanding musical gifts, high intelligence and rare sensitivity. She has been presenting the piano works of Schubert’s last six years (for the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series, BBC Radio 3 and Avie Records) in a bid to make the commanding unity of his extraordinary genius even more widely respected and appreciated. This concert, the last of a series, contained the first and the last of the majestic, ultimate, in-his-lifetime-unrecognised piano sonatas.
What we heard was a judicious distillation of Schubert’s genius. The performances are towering and timeless – lessons in presenting the composer’s invention as integral parts of a musical kaleidoscope. Technique lay at the base. Cooper’s lightness of touch, her sense of notes scurrying purposefully across the page had the effortless drive of a virtuoso dedicating her skills entirely to discharge of the music – with no hint of trying to amaze the hoi-polloi. Her phrasing was impeccable. Each phrase – trenchantly understood – was, consequently, elegantly shaped. She had clearly given thought to identifying for each phrase an unassailable place in the context of the piece. Her transitions from one key to another, heralding one of Schubert’s awe-inspiring changes of mood and texture, were handled with dextrous, silken aplomb.
From time to time, her fingers achieved the marvel of softness that hardly made any sound at all (yet was ringing and clear). Her wrists gave us octave passages whose vibrations trembled in the air and whose solemn chords were monoliths of stone. Above all, Cooper left us with a keen sense of Schubert’s integrity and dignity as a composer – underlying the vital point that Schubert achieved these monumental effects through a solid, grand simplicity of means. His works were not the outpourings of a country bumpkin, a rustic with an artless gift for melody. This was a man worthy of inordinate respect who – as the best way of giving voice to his whole self – had chosen to express himself resolutely and simply. He was a man, furthermore, who, in his last half-dozen years, strode towards fuller expression through determined experiment.
It would be invidious to dwell on particular performances in the concert. Each piece – whether brief dance or extended lament – was part of the same greater intent, namely, to play Schubert as a whole. Consider Cooper’s request not to applaud when the German Dances ended and before A minor Sonata opened. The effect was astonishing – the move without hesitation from joyful tread to bare, solid rock. The B flat Sonata, sole constituent of the concert’s second half, stood firmly on the shoulders of what had come before – a summation that was sublime yet human and mortal.