Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Britten Sinfonia/Imogen Cooper @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

10 December 2007

The trendy young couple down in row C nod excitedly; the young children next to me are bouncing in their seat; I’m almost tempted to hum along.

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Queen Elizabeth Hall (Photo: Morley von Sternberg)

Led Zeppelin may have been reforming across London at the O2 Arena, but the real fun on Monday night was to be had at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Imogen Cooper was soloist in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

The work, publicly premiered by the composer in 1808 (Beethoven’s final public appearance as a soloist), opens with weariness, even sorrow, and the overall sense is of resignation and calm. Yet beware, for storm clouds pass ominously over the surface of each of the three movements, casting angular, minor key shadows, and this pianist’s reading was vastly successful in achieving a potent, dangerous balance between the work’s assuaging lyricism and its troubled introspective rumblings.

Cooper’s light, airy touch caressed the initial thematic entries of the Allegro moderato and the Rondo, the latter’s opening dashed off with beautifully casual nonchalance. But the right hand twinklings and rich, yearning chords often collapse, revealing black menace lurking beneath. The dialogue here between orchestra and piano in the Andante con moto was especially dramatic, the piano’s reassuring responses unable to quell the gutsy, biting string statements. Cooper directed the Britten Sinfonia from the piano, not with her hands but with her face: with a wistful sigh, an icy nod, a bitter headshake. The ensemble could have been tighter in the final movement, but the orchestral sound was rich and attuned to Beethoven’s unpredictable tempestuousness.

Before the interval, Birtwistle’s Bach Measures was given an equally effective reading. The work cleverly orchestrates eight of Bach’s chorale preludes, staying true to the original compositions but incessantly shooting melodic lines around the reduced band. This quickfire patter is colourful and exhilarating, the ear pleasantly assaulted by majestic trumpet lines, scrubbing viola motifs and flute trills, coalescing in antiphonal splendour. The orchestra, under leader Jacqueline Shave‘s superb direction, played here with great virtuosity, yet allowed the audience time to breathe during the slower preludes.

There was, however, barely a moment to inhale or exhale during the following performance of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. This was colourful, bouncy fun from first bar to last, every theme stated with both wit and precision. The Allegro‘s violin syncopations lightly dancing, providing effective dramatic and dynamic contrast to the movement’s bristling, confidently stated outer sections, complete with precise, springing tutti stabs. Throughout, the athleticism of the orchestra was admirable, as was the sense of forward movement sustained, in the Larghetto by lilting string and woodwind pulses. It was a very thrilling concert.

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