Imogen Cooper & The Britten Sinfonia: Beethoven

Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
Rondino in E flat, WoO25
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.19

Britten Sinfonia
Imogen Cooper (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth A. Clifford

Reviewed: 2 October, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Here, London-born pianist Imogen Cooper joined the Britten Sinfonia in its season’s opening concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Cooper made her last appearance with the orchestra in 2004 with a selection of Mozart concertos; this time, Beethoven was the focus.

The Concerto No.1 in C was in fact the composer’s third attempt at the genre: preceding it was a concerto in E flat and the one in B flat (published as No.2). The tempo of the Allegro con brio allowed ample time for detail to be audible, though not at the expense of the overall drive and energy that give the music its appeal. Cooper’s first entry after the opening orchestral statement revealed an exquisite celestial sound which seemed to defy the technical limitations of the instrument. She presented each phrase as though she were uncovering its meaning for the first time, breathing new energy and life into the composer’s characteristic devices such as descending chromatic scales and standard harmonic modulations. Cooper did not seek to do more than Beethoven asks for – she brought purity through simplicity and realised a genuine freedom from having embraced the score’s directions.

Cooper began the Largo with an intimate sound that was later matched and explored by the clarinet. It is crucial for the pianist to set a tempo that allows a single note to ring from the moment of its creation so that it soars above the harmony, enticing the ear to follow until it disappears. If the tempo veers towards the too-slow side, the melody can lose its intensity making what should be one long, seamless phrase an unrelated group of isolated segments. Here, the soloist judged the tempo to perfection. Cooper gave a wonderful account of the finale, capturing all the humour and wit of the piece with some terrific interplay with the orchestra. The main theme, which has a descending group of right-hand thirds, was played with some charming rubato, a lightness of touch and elegant articulation. Beethoven uses accents throughout the movement to illustrate a ‘question and answer’-type conversation between soloist and orchestra. Both parties used these accents to produce just the desired effect.

In 1792, Beethoven wrote his Rondino in E flat for wind octet (pairs of oboes, horns, bassoons and clarinets), which had flourished in Vienna since the time of Mozart. Sandwiched between the two piano concertos, the Rondino served as a fine contrast. Its challenges were sensitively met by the Britten Sinfonia.

Imogen Cooper then returned for a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in B flat. Her ornamentation shimmered from the outset and every modulation somehow came as a surprise. In this concerto, Beethoven uses the full range of the piano to great effect and calls for more conversations between the bass and treble lines than in the C major concerto, thereby encompassing both masculine and feminine voices. Cooper used the contrasts well – not only through voicing but also with the use of sensitively weighted staccato and legato.

In the hands of a lesser artist, this concerto can often fail to convince, but Imogen Cooper, with an abundance of charm and elegance, portrayed the brilliance of the work. She was never afraid to whisper the pianissimos, to draw the listener into the most vulnerable and delicate soundworld, to take an extra moment to listen to the diminishment of a note which so often leads to uncertain and unexpected harmonic territory in search of resolution. That is surely how Beethoven should be: challenging, inspiring, surprising and stimulating.

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