Neil Cooney Recital – 19 May

Chopin, Debussy, Liszt, Ravel and Schubert

Neil Cooney (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 19 May, 2003
Venue: Purcell Room, London

This recital had something of the music society about it – an evening for the pianist’s family and friends. Unlike recent Purcell Room recitals by Danny Driver and Jill Crossland, where ’supporters’ were equally evident, one didn’t sense Neil Cooney’s audience listened especially intently or critically; partly a concomitant of Cooney’s likeable if circumspect renditions. Such a ’lightweight’ audience was also prone to be distracting – often the air crackled as the single sheet of paper masquerading as a programme was referred to – Debussy and Ravel, Chopin even, do not yet seem standard repertoire. Then add in the sound of shoe-on-floor from a near-neighbour when something toe-tapping came along (rarely was appendage and pianist in sync though) and the lady, an exhaustive applauder, who rustled her paper hanky at regular intervals. I left before a couple of Liszt pieces concluded the evening.

The ’accepting’ and partisan members of this audience may not understand the following. In a nutshell, Neil Cooney is a talented and relaxed performer. His repertoire is well-learnt and honestly played. He does indeed, pace the publicity, have his poetical side and plays with welcome delicacy and sensitivity. He unfolded Schubert’s A major sonata (D664) naturally and with thoughtful dynamics; classical, lightly touched but glossing over the ennui that impinge even this seemingly untroubled work. (Driver gave a more interesting interpretation.) Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales was painstakingly accurate without enquiring into the music’s sub-surface, the demonstrative opening matter-of-fact. It would be idle to suggest that Cooney is a literal performer, but he doesn’t seem to want to stray too far from a composer’s notation. The first set of Debussy’s Images also enjoyed a sympathetic response, a persuasive directness for ’Hommage à Rameau’ (if a need to expand later went unheeded) countered by a rather tepid ’Mouvement’.

Three Mazurkas, the C sharp minor Scherzo and F minor Ballade all suggested that Chopin’s music doesn’t course through Cooney’s veins. This was ’nice’ Chopin playing, somewhat strict, ultimately generalised, Cooney’s likeable traits not sufficient to take the music into a dimension of its own. Technically easeful overall, Cooney was slightly taxed in the more transcendental passages of the scherzo and ballade.

Cooney appears to be a ’middle-ground’ musician – respectful and pleasing, rather than searching and individual. His tact and aesthetic sensibility are his calling card – and appreciated as such – and which should be the envy of some bigger-name pianists. It seems though, at the moment, that Cooney should be keening the spirit of the music he plays rather than smoothly delivering its letter.

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