“Nothing up my sleeve ladies and gentlemen,” said Beethoven about his Bagatelles Opus 33. Words Imogen Cooper could well have said about her Medici Recital last week.
Poised and measured, as a recitalist Cooper exuded elegant pianism, intellect and finesse. There were no frills. No slick platform chatter, no swooped arms, head throws, cycled elbows, harmonic savagery, not a hint of showbiz or histrionics at the keys. No encore.
The programme design was lean, conceptual, truth be told a little “bitty,” all repertoire driven towards Beethoven’s beautiful, confessional Sonata Op. 110 in A Flat Major. One of the big three composed between 1820 and 1822 that comprise the composer’s last hurrah in the piano sonata genre.
First stop were the Op.33 Bagatelles a reflection of Beethoven’s early style. Cooper’s delivery of this magnificent seven plumbed the multiple dimensions of the work – the humour, playfulness, virtuosity and reflective stance of the less frenetic fourth and sixth. In the fourth especially, Cooper flashed her gift for glowing lyricism.
Haydn’s Sonata in C Minor presents extreme technical challenge. It’s a labyrinth of layered complexity, daring harmonies and theatricality. Often compared to Beethoven’s Appassionata, this was the first of Haydn’s keyboard offerings earmarked for the new fortepiano.
Cooper discharged the virtuosic challenge effortlessly and demonstrated admirable mastery in punctuating the harmonic twists and extremes in dynamics. A marvel technically, Cooper is a tone spinner of the highest order, but as elegant and impeccably detailed as the delivery was, at times it came across as chilly and remote.
After interval, the programme presaged the late classical period’s leanings towards the Romantic era. Cooper seemed more deeply immersed in the music and channeled the emotional as well as the structural ideas.
Beethoven’s Variations on La Stessa, la Stessissima, WoO73 is testament to the composer’s fondness for composing variations based on catchy operatic melodies. The theme from the duet, La Stessa, La Stessissima in Salieri’s Falstaff provides the creative stimulus for this richly imagined set. Cooper’s approach was infinitely expressive. She thoroughly explored the light and shade and different compositional treatment of each variation.
Yet, much more rewarding was Cooper’s rendition of Schubert’s Klavierstücke D946, No 2 in E flat major. There was a luxurious warmth, greater personal investment and a deep empathy with the questioning, heart-melting stance so typical of Schubert’s late works.
The pinnacle of Cooper’s recital was resoundingly Beethoven’s Op. 110. Here her pianism was outstanding. Persuasively, she championed the first movement’s songlike, pensive theme and fielded the interruptions of fleet fingerwork with astonishing panache. Not a volcanic, roiling interpretation but true to herself and the composer.
She lured the listener inside Beethoven’s intricate architecture, enabled the audience to receive the composer’s confessional outpourings and commanded magnificent clarity in the three-voiced fugue. Each voice characterized succinctly, expertly mustered to an exhilarating finish.