Imogen Cooper Plays Schubert

Piano Sonata in C, D840 (Relique)
Impromptus, D935
Piano Sonata in A, D959

Imogen Cooper (piano)

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 15 April, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Imogen CooperAlthough among his greatest works, most of the handful of Schubert’s late piano sonatas were not published in his lifetime, victims of the increasing vogue for more compact forms (nocturnes, preludes, waltzes). Subsequently these last flowerings of sonata tradition stretching back to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven have suffered from the unimpressed Schumann’s comment that they are meandering works that rely on “spinning out a certain idea”, and that they lack the incisive drama of Beethoven’s great sonatas.

Imogen Cooper is a dedicated champion of Schubert’s works, determined to prove that his sonatas should be respected as serious giants of the repertory. This was reflected in her recital with committed, well-considered and intense performances. Some pianists may bring out more humour or Viennese charm, but Cooper’s approach served to highlight the extraordinary depth and often-glossed-over seriousness of the music, making every note count. Never too weighty or excessively romantic, neither too trivial nor lightweight, Cooper’s way let the music speak for itself. As she says, “There is no side to [Schubert], there is craft but no ‘art’.”

The performances grew in stature. Least satisfying was the two-movement ‘Relique’ Sonata, ‘unfinished’ in the same state as the B minor Symphony (No.8) – and sharing that work’s epic scope. Though impressively scaled, Cooper often seemed bogged down in the heavy recurring motifs, and there was little variety of colour.

Far more variegated was the second set of four Impromptus, Schubert’s own foreshadowing of the Romantic predilection for shorter forms. Her celebrated teacher, Alfred Brendel, treats the first of the set with more flamboyant abandon, but Cooper’s measured account was mesmerising. The simple Allegretto melody of No.2 was beautifully poised, imbued with superb line; the Variations of No.3 provided opportunity for dreamy, silken playing as well as immaculately controlled passagework; and the quirky Hungarian dance of the final Impromptu was full of character, exciting and dynamic.

Following a muscular, urgent account of the first movement of Schubert’s penultimate Sonata, came the aching sorrow of the Andantino. Cooper’s eloquence ensured that the yearning, timeless melody spoke with powerful directness, going straight to the heart. The grippingly played, tumultuous drama of the contrasting sections (rivalling anything in Beethoven’s sonatas) was violently shocking. Much needed light relief was provided by the gently gambolling scherzo, with subtly lilting trio, and the colossal finale concluded an outstanding and moving recital.

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