Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Imogen Cooper In Recital

On Sunday afternoon, my parents and Joshua and I went to Sundin Music Hall to hear pianist Imogen Cooper in recital. The recital was sponsored by Minneapolis’s Frederic Chopin Society.

Cooper is a serious and thoughtful pianist. Her performances are neat and lucid.

Cooper does not have the virtuosity of a Maurizio Pollini. She does not explore the coloristic possibilities of the instrument like an Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. She does not possess the intellectual gravitas of a Wilhelm Backhaus and she displays none of the personality and charm of an Arthur Rubenstein. Whatever poetry she offers is low-key, and whatever drama she commands is limited. Her musical imagination does not rival that of Sviatoslav Richter.

Cooper’s Minneapolis recital, nonetheless, was a pleasure, albeit more for the music than for the performance.

Cooper was shown to best advantage in the recital’s first half, when she played Haydn’s Sonata No. 52 In E-Flat Major, Hoboken XVI, and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 17 In D Minor (“Tempest”). These are two of my favorite piano sonatas; I believe I could listen to them daily.

Within the pianist’s limitations, these were fine performances: well-shaped, well-considered, well-executed—if a touch studied.

The Haydn was fresh and graceful—and probably the finest performance of the afternoon. Cooper showed herself to be a considerable Haydn pianist—and superior to her teacher, Alfred Brendel, whose Haydn recordings demonstrate that he never “got” Haydn. Cooper captured the precise emotional temperature of each Haydn movement without once violating the boundaries of Classicism. Tension never dissipated, momentum never flagged, wit was present where required. Cooper’s was one of the finest Haydn performances I have heard.

The Beethoven was almost as fine, except Cooper lost concentration—and momentum—in both outer movements. Cooper eschews rhetoric—some rhetoric is called for in the Beethoven—and the Beethovenian qualities of power and struggle are not within Cooper’s arsenal. A “Tempest” Sonata without rhetoric is, by definition, smaller in scale than need be; a “Tempest” Sonata free of power and struggle provides a constricted view of one of Beethoven’s most satisfying works. I was happy to hear Cooper’s Beethoven, but hers was a Beethoven very much bleached of elemental qualities.

Hearing Haydn’s final sonata immediately followed by one of Beethoven’s middle-period sonatas, I found it interesting to note that only seven or eight years separated the two compositions. (The Haydn was composed in 1794; the Beethoven was written in 1801/1802.) Beethoven packed twenty-five years of music evolution into those seven or eight years; the emotional range and power of the Beethoven were far more advanced than anything Haydn had attempted in his countless compositions for keyboard.

The second half of the recital was devoted to Romantic repertory, and was not as successful as the first half of the program.

Cooper first played the transcription for piano of the second movement of Brahms’s Sextet For Strings, Opus 18. Brahms made the transcription himself as a gift for Clara Schumann; the transcription was never published during the composer’s lifetime (although both the composer and Clara Schumann thought highly of the transcription).

I thought Cooper’s performance of the Brahms the low point of the afternoon. Her playing was too crystalline, and too objective, for a work in need of warmth and richness to make an effect.

Chopin’s second Nocturne from the Opus 27 set followed the Brahms; the Chopin was immediately followed by Schumann’s Fantasiest├╝cke, Opus 12.

The Schumann, lasting almost half an hour, was the most extended piece of the afternoon. It was also music requiring fertile imagination—and Cooper provided none. I thought Cooper’s performance of the Schumann was clinical, lacking intellectual penetration and emotional depth. By the fourth of the eight pieces, I had become restless, wishing to be rescued by Wilhelm Kempff. Cooper brought nothing to the Fantasiest├╝cke other than neatness of execution.

Sundin Music Hall is a beautiful venue for solo recitals. No seats are far from the stage; the acoustics are as intimate as the hall itself. It is a wonderful space in which to hear serious music.

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