Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Imogen Cooper review – a recital of the highest order at the Nevill Holt Festival

16 June 2024

A beautiful programme of Schubert, Bach, Adès and Beethoven.

Imogen Cooper

Imogen Cooper (Photo: Sam Smith)

This concert, which was part of the 2024 Nevill Holt Festival, was originally planned as a programme of songs by Brahms, Wolf, Loewe, Duparc and Poulenc. It was to be performed by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Imogen Cooper, but only a few days before the event it was announced that Connolly was indisposed. It is always a shame for performer and audience alike when this happens, and Cooper seemed as disappointed as anyone that she would not be accompanying her friend. However, she stepped into the breach to perform a solo piano recital that held everyone spellbound in the intimate theatre at Nevill Holt.

The focus of Cooper’s programme was the contrast between darkness and light, with the pianist feeling that Schubert juxtaposes ‘awareness of pain and death’ with ‘the embracing of life and love’. As she set in motion the pulsating rhythm that runs through nearly his entire Piano Sonata in C Major, D 840, ‘The Reliquie’ (1825), one was struck by the range of apparent ‘contradictions’ in her playing that, when put together, made for an exceptionally coherent, exciting and accomplished whole. 

Both the left and right hands seemed to be working to maximise the effects in the individual lines, and yet together they produced exceptionally balanced and seamless playing. This was actually a very powerful rendering of the work, yet it was not the boldness of the performance that really hit us because the strong matching of different effects ensured that the overall sound remained rounded and balanced. Her playing seemed to reflect the programme’s pieces as a whole in ensuring that the darkness was never completely black, because it was tempered by a range of effects and feelings, and the light never absolute as there were always other things going on as well.

“…a solo piano recital that held everyone spellbound…”

It was clear that the accuracy, precision and complete mastery of rhythm in Cooper’s playing were behind such successful performances, but there was more to it than that. Her ability to micromanage her sound felt commensurate with being able to control twenty variables with only ten levers. For example, some of the ‘rippling’ effects she created in Schubert’s Impromptu in E flat, D 899, No. 2 (1827), one of two of his Impromptus that she played in the first half, were so well achieved that they almost went beyond themselves to feel ‘smooth’ once more. 

The second half of the programme began with J. S. Bach’s Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein, BWV 734 (c.1715), arranged by Wilhelm Kempff, and Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 (c.1748), arranged by Ferruccio Busoni. Once again, this enabled Cooper to contrast the ‘virtuosic and joyful’ with the ‘reflective and noble’ as the difference in tone between the two pieces was quite marked. 

Cooper believes that nobody since Bartòk has written as inventively for the piano as Thomas Adès, and loves the way in which his Darknesse Visible (1992) contrasts ‘bell-like sounds’ with ‘beautiful fluttering shimmering’ repeated notes. As she explained to the audience, her difficulty was deciding what to follow it with, as the choice was to plunge further into darkness or to change course by opting for something more uplifting. Believing that the silence that comes after a piece belongs to the composer as much as its notes, she took the decision as to what should invade that space very seriously. As a result, when she struck on the idea of following it with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110 (1821), which would mean opting for something generally brighter and more lyrical, she actually asked Adès what he thought. He decided that the contrast would work well, and on hearing the pieces together it was difficult to disagree, as they seemed to represent the ultimate combination of inspired programming and superlative playing.    

• Nevill Holt Festival’s 2024 season, which includes literature, history, comedy and jazz alongside classical music, continues until 26 June. For details of all events and tickets visit its website.

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