Proms at St Jude’s – Imogen Cooper

Sonata in C, Hob.XVI:50
Bagatelles, Op.6
Impromptus, D899
Bagatelle sans tonalité
Hungarian Rhapsody No.13 in A minor

Imogen Cooper (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 20 June, 2008
Venue: St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London

Imogen Cooper. Photograph: Jennifer TaylorImogen Cooper’s gifts include a limpid intelligence, an enviable technique, a sensitive touch, a profoundly feminine sensibility, a detached yet intense innigkeit, a robust pianistic stamina and a capacity for holding the music she plays in deep affection.

Consider the intelligence of her programme-making, characteristically left to the audience to discern. This was an Austro-Hungarian evening of works from four composers born in the same Empire, two from each part (Haydn and Schubert from Austria, Liszt and Bartók from Hungary). Furthermore, in their different ways, each work was experimental and searching, pressing against the boundaries of musical form – a particular, personal selection that took full advantage of the relative informality of the Proms at St Jude’s.

The Haydn sonata is a late work (1794-5), written in London for Thérèse Jansen. The first and longest movement is restless and searching. Ideas and variants of ideas are toyed with, cast aside and then re-appear in different guise and unexpected keys. As is often the case with this composer, the basic musical ideas are straightforward. But if Haydn is the father of sonata form, he is also the father of fracturing its bounds, and was far more adventurous than Mozart ever was. The solemn melancholy of the slow movement thus has a spare, grave sonority, while the final Allegro molto scampers with glancing contrapuntal and chromatic asides towards a hushed close – all of which were deliciously and adroitly handled by Cooper.

We heard 11 Bartók Bagatelles. They relate to the Hungarian folk music that he and Kodály collected in the early 1900s. Many of these derived from ancient modes and rhythms, far distant from the ‘gypsy’ style that Brahms popularized. The young Bartók then supplemented the folk-songs, often with his own dissonance, tonalities and rhythms. Imogen Cooper played this kaleidoscope of pieces deftly, enjoying their flamboyant experimentation and taking care to bring out the melodies lying within the different textures.

Schubert’s Impromptus could not fail to charm. Nothing quite like them had been composed before. Yes, Schubert was exploratory. Cooper gave them a lightly urgent, lyrical rendition. The notes fell under her fingers as if they were lifelong residents; the moods sang as if she had known them from birth. I prefer Schubert to sound a little weightier – but I was soon caught up in this enchanted performance.

The Liszt Bagatelle was brief and extraordinary – utterly modern in outlook, arresting, resembling the beguiling austerity of Haydn’s Adagio. It was the same composer’s swirling, czardas-style Hungarian Rhapsody that ended the concert – in an exhilarating flourish of vigorous and ardent romance.

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