Imogen Cooper gave a scholarly performance

August 22, 2017 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Although the tiger never got out of the cage, English pianist Imogen Cooper gave an impeccable account of Beethoven, Haydn and Ades at Sydney’s Recital Hall…writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Imogen Cooper

Her program was set to please an audience of classical period tastes, with one notable exception: a bombette by Thomas Ades thrown in for seven minutes of disruption.

The program opened with the earlier set of seven Beethoven bagatelles Op 33. The literal translation of bagatelle is ‘trifle’ (not the sort you eat) and when Beethoven presented them to his publisher he copped a reject letter because they were considered ‘below the dignity of an artist of Beethoven’s stature’. However, they did get published by somebody else and then played with relish.

Under the hands of Imogen Cooper the bagatelles came across as charming and quite fulfilling. In some of them you get the feeling that Beethoven is showing a rare streak of humour. Number five was especially mirthful as it repeated a sequence of figures until you thought ‘not again, please’ whereupon the pianist appears to have a memory lapse and takes three runs at continuing before the double thirds are unblocked and run away down the piano laughing.

Although we come across Haydn piano sonatas frequently these days, they were not so popular or well-known even thirty years ago. Now they pop up regularly as piano competition pieces because they offer scope to demonstrate technique and interpretation as well as making for attractive listening.

The Haydn Sonata in C minor, Hob.XV1:20 comes in three, rather than the customary four movements. It is full of rippling single notes with trill at every intersection. Cooper is a Haydn specialist and she played it superbly. Again, it demonstrated that she is a master of cantabile and legato. She can turn a melody into an aria without relying on volume to do it.

After interval, there was more non-mainstream Beethoven with Ten Variations on ‘La stessa, la stessissima’ in which Ludwig Van took a theme from Salieri’s opera Falstaff and cooked it with ten different recipes. While this was not profound, it did reveal some of the virtuosic resources that Beethoven had at his command. It also revealed something of Cooper’s technical armoury, not just in fistfuls of noisy notes but in control of pianissimo – something I admire more as I grow older.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Then the unexpected, maybe incongruous performance of Darkness Visible (after John Dowland) by Thomas Ades, born in 1971. This is a strange piece, as contemporary music often is, because it largely comprises of forte bell notes over a shimmering drone of repeated notes played so lightly that they are barely audible. Although interesting, I didn’t fall in love with it, but I did appreciate the technique needed by Imogen Cooper to bring if off. I was probably among the vast majority of the audience who’d never heard it before. In such cases one never knows when the finishing line has been reached. God help those who clap while the piece is still coming up the straight. One must wait for the pianist’s hands to lift. Cooper had a trick up the sleeve of her attractive, large patterned jacket. She left her hands on the keys and, without a break, slipped into the sublime opening bars of Beethoven’s Sonata No.31 in A flat major, Op.110.

That was the defining moment for me. It was sheer magic.

This sonata, like the Haydn, only runs to three movements. It was the second last of Beethoven’s sonata output and is at odds with his reportedly grumpy demeanour at the time. From its tender opening to its unexpected fugue at the finish it breaks the mould – as so many of Beethoven’s sonatas did.

I wrote at the beginning that Cooper’s tiger never got out of its cage. The reason for that was entirely owing to the classical rails the program ran on. And that’s okay. While my lustful side seeks some romantic fireworks, it is good for the soul to stay tethered between 1730 and 1820 for once.

The same will not be said when Alexander Gavrylyuk comes to the recital Hall in November. With one of the most explosive techniques in the world, he could well take out the piano.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels. and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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