Imogen Cooper (piano); Alfred Brendel (piano); Raphel Oleg (violin); Sonia Wieder-Atherton (cello); Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (director); Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Sir Neville Marriner (conductor)
Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Rachmaninov
Philips 476 209-5 (3-CD)
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Perhaps the most satisfying offering overall is an account of Rachmaninov’s Sonata for cello and piano, page after page presented with an understanding of style and sensitivity to tone and mood that are utterly persuasive. The near-flawless quality of the presentation is all the more remarkable when one takes into consideration that for much of the recording, Cooper was in such pain (from a trapped spinal nerve, eventually diagnosed by an MRI scan) that she had frequently to bite her lip to prevent her crying out. And inbetween takes, it was necessary for her to lie prone on the floor as this gave some relief from severe discomfort.
Despite this, the recording is a joy from start to finish, the clarity and refinement with which both the piano and cello parts are essayed quite revelatory. And a complete avoidance of honeyed sentimentality on the one hand and tasteless lapses into vulgarity on the other helps make this recording by Cooper and cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton an interpretation to savour. I particularly liked the scherzo which comes across like a dance for phantoms – and the romantic ardour which informs the playing in the finale is everything one could have wished it to be.
In a solo capacity, Cooper is magical in two Brahms Intermezzi, Opus 116 No 2, a little miracle of tenderness and glowing tone – and Opus 116 No 6 is no less satisfying. More often than not, and in lesser hands, the latter can sound turgid and dense-textured. Here, for once, its lyrical ideas are presented with rare clarity, its essence captured like a butterfly in the gentlest of hands. Has Cooper recorded more of these miniatures? If not, she should.
Cooper is frankly magnificent in Schubert’s Sonata No 21 in B flat, D 960. In the first movement, she is a master guide taking us on a journey across one of the composer’s most sombre landscapes. Listen, too, to the poignancy of Cooper’s account of the slow movement and how masterfully she is able to maintain a sense of onward momentum at very slow speed. It’s a remarkable feat of musicianship. And the carefree high spirits that are the essence of the Scherzo make for listening of a most satisfying sort. In evoking the unclouded happiness of the finale, Cooper takes up an interpretative standpoint at the emotional epicentre of the music.
There’s more delight in Schubert’s Trio in B flat, D898, the first movement splendidly full-blooded and the following Andante fastidiously mined for every ingot of melodic and harmonic beauty. Here, it is as if Cooper, Raphael Oleg (violin) and Wieder-Atherton (cello) are drawing on a shared musical consciousness. And the jaunty, folksy nature of the scherzo is a perfect foil to the blitheness that the ensemble brings to the opening measures of the finale.
Cooper joins her great mentor Alfred Brendel in Mozart’s Concerto for two pianos, K365. Time has not dulled this famous recording, made in 1977. It’s a joy from start to finish. The finale is given magnificent treatment, the nobility and grandeur of the writing incomparably presented. If ever a recording warranted re-issue, it’s this. So, too, the Concerto for three pianos, K242, here in a version for two pianos. The outer movements are a delight, the intricacies of the finale having all the precision of a fine Swiss watch but not for a moment sounding mechanical or impersonal. The slow movements of both this concerto and K365 are beyond conventional criticism. There’s also a very much more recent Mozart recording; it dates from November 2000, a ‘live’ performance of K595 given by Cooper and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
The soloist’s poised and elegant treatment of the first movement of K595 is admirable. I very much admired, too, the simplicity with which she presents the Larghetto; blessedly free of artifice, it’s a performance to cherish. So, too, the finale, its blithe, lilting qualities beautifully established.
Cooper is no less persuasive as a lieder accompanist. Her partnership with baritone Wolfgang Holzmair yields some of the compilation’s finest listening. Their performance of Wolf’s Seemanns Abschied has about it a sense of urgency that grips the attention – and the serenity with which Schumann’s Die Lotusblume unfolds sounds intuitively right. And the charm and very real melodic delights of a bracket of Clara Schumann’s
Songs may well be revelatory for those coming to these songs for the first time.
Cyrus Meher-Homji, whose brainchild this 3-CD set is, works tirelessly to retrieve memorable recordings which, for one or other reason, have been dropped from the catalogues. This set of CDs is an instance, especially in relation to some extraordinarily searching lieder interpretations which, thanks to this re-issue, are available to listeners who might not have been aware of their existence. And for those who might have experienced Imogen Cooper’s artistry exclusively in relation to solo work, this set will bring home just how versatile this remarkable musician is.
Copyright 2004 Neville Cohn