Cooper journeys through works of three 19th century master composers.

Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre

August 26, 2014

On Tuesday evening at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Imogen Cooper led an attentive audience on a journey through the works of three master composers of the 19th century. This was an impressive recital right from the beginning to the very last note of the encore. Brahms’ arrangement for solo piano of the Theme and Variations from his own first string sextet opened the program. This work has a noble theme followed by variations which contain increasingly florid figurations before the work winds down to a gentle place of rest. This emotional shape was to be a familiar thread throughout the recital and in the Brahms, Cooper gleaned tremendous moments of beauty from each variation and bookended them with a delivery of the opening theme and concluding bars which made the work grow and subside with a powerful unifying spirit.

The next work on the program was the Davidsbündlertänze by Schumann. This piano cycle is very unique amongst Schumann’s other famous examples such as the Carnaval, Fantasiestücke or Kreisleriana. In general, the Carnaval has a mix of shorter and longer pieces that mingle to form a whole. In the Fantasiestücke and Kreisleriana, every piece is on a larger scale.  But in the Davidsbündlertänze, the general trend (with some exceptions) is towards shorter pieces in the first nine and then the remaining nine are more extended. And there were many fine moments in the first nine movements as Cooper delved into the jumpy figures and tender replies of the opening number. There was more beautiful playing in No 5, a gripping No 7 followed by a whirlwind of virtuosity in Nos 8 and 9 that concluded the first half of the piece. But the most wonderful playing occurred after this in the more extended pieces of the second half including No 4 where the central choral was delivered with such lyrical beauty that one was fortunate to have it come back twice as a result of the repeat; also No 5 was played with great tenderness as was the sweeping central melody of No 6. In the second to last number, Schumann brings back music from the beginning, this time couched in new harmonies and with a coda. Cooper played this number with an elevated intensity and then brought the cycle to a natural place of rest with a simple but touching conclusion.

After the interval, Cooper played the Novellette, Op. 21 No 2 in D major by Schumann. This piece is very similar in structure and spirit to many of the movements from the second half of the Davidsbündlertänze and Cooper was able to bring the same combination of virtuosity and lyricism here as she did in the previous examples. The night’s program ended with a majestic performance of the Schubert B-flat major Sonata where Cooper once again impressed with her sensitive and finely gradated playing. From the intimate delivery of the opening theme, to the musical silences and outbursts of the concluding material of the exposition, through the mystery and drama of the development section, and to the whispering bass trills before the recapitulation, Cooper was once again a powerful unifying agent for the music’s vast landscape. And this continued in the second movement where the musical sunshine and darkness of Schubert’s key changes were sensitively conveyed. After a charming dash through the Scherzo, Cooper gave a fiery account of the finale. This is an extended movement where the musical struggle occurs right in the middle and only finds rest in the triumphant conclusion. Once again, Cooper was able to combine moments of beauty and a powerful driving force towards these crucial moments that framed the movement. After extended applause from the audience, Cooper gave another soulful account of Schubert, this time the Allegretto in C minor.

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