Concert Review: Singapore International Piano Festival 2015 – Imogen Cooper

Imogen CooperSingapore International Piano Festival 2015 “Romantics & Nationalists”
Thursday, 25 June 2015, 7.30pm
Victoria Concert Hall

Imogen Cooper, piano (left, photo Soo Kian Hing)

CHOPIN: Barcarolle, Op.60
SCHUMANN: Humoreske, Op.20
SCHUBERT: 12 German Dances, D.790
SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in A major, D.959

Review by Soo Kian Hing

In what has become an annual pilgrimage for pianophiles, the Singapore International Piano Festival has grown into a popular niche festival, curated for a taste of what lies beyond the paltry offerings in Singapore’s piano recital circuit. Like an intense four-night wine-tasting bonanza, the audience is treated to a pianist of a different temperament each night, playing repertoire loosely centred around a theme. This year, the Festival looked at an important artistic and literary movement in 19th-century Europe: that of Romanticism, and subsequently Nationalism. At about the same time as literary figures Goethe, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and their ilk, the musical circle developed its own brand of Romantic and Nationalistic composers. It can be argued that Romanticism in classical music had its roots in the German composers, and what better introduction to the Romantics and Nationalists than to start off with a recital of Schubert, Schumann, and Chopin!

Featured tonight was English rose Imogen Cooper. Taking the stage in a conservative layered dress that nonetheless glittered and shone and topped off with a perfect coiffure reminiscent of a younger Queen Elizabeth, Cooper exuded an undeniable English air. Despite having studied extensively in Paris and Vienna, hearing her play is like hearing Julie Andrews sing — that English epitome of poise and refinement is immediately evident.

chopin3Chopin’s (right) Barcarolle — a gondolier’s song — started solidly on the first chord, and the lilting rhythm quickly became a slow languid rolling in the background. While other pianists would jump at the chance to propel the gondola along, under Cooper’s fingers we see and hear a lot more details: a cheerful English countryside waterway, chirping birds, sunshine-dappled meadows and leas stretching to the horizon filled with wildflowers in spring. All very pleasant, but not quite what we would usually expect of the brooding Polish composer. The lush delivery was marred only by some missteps, and just a bit much of unhurried reticence in the build-up to the climax. It seemed Cooper was just getting warmed up, however.

Schumann’s piano works are the very embodiment of the Romantic ideal: liberally breaking the confines of Classicism, his ideas flit between the fiery passionate extrovert Florestan and the melancholic introverted Eusebius, creating musical tension and defying Classical form. Cooper chose to play the composer’s Op.20, a work written after some of the composer’s greatest piano pieces like Kreisleriana and Fantasie in C. The piece began with some lush rendering that was again slightly conservative in expression, but after one or two sections in the music Cooper seemed to lose the English frostiness, and suddenly unleashed the German Romantic. And what a glorious Romantic it was! Guttural passion emanated from the belly, contrasting with lyrical expression that cooled the fire. In the more frenzied sections, Cooper played as if possessed, crazed and with conviction. Meanwhile, in the more reflective parts, she revelled in the musical rhetoric. It is perhaps this ability to entertain a musical to-and-fro that has her interpretation aligning so perfectly with Schumann’s own schizophrenic musical ideas.

schubertAs for Schubert (left), who was the Romantic-era equivalent of a hit songwriter, Cooper offered his 12 German Dances and penultimate piano sonata. The German Dances demonstrated Schubert’s ability to encapsulate large emotions in small pieces, and Cooper did a wonderful job of bringing out various nuances and hidden melodies in the set. In the Sonata, too, Cooper was scintillating in the slow movement, with the inherent pathos — Schubert was contemplating dark thoughts as he neared the end of his short life — palpably washing over the hushed audience. Everyone was so caught up in the eddy that a veil of despair seemed to settle over the concert hall at times. The forlornness was dispelled with the third movement, where Cooper sparkled with wit and this was easily the best-performed movement in the Sonata.

The Schubert, quite unexpectedly, brought up some issues with playing early Romantic music on a Steinway. While the richness of tone was something that Cooper brought out very well on the Victoria Concert Hall’s Steinway, I could not help but wonder whether Schubert would sound better on a fortepiano of his own time. He is a composer best known for brewing a storm in a teacup, creating intense eloquence in the context of miniatures. But once the teacup gets exchanged for, say, a swimming pool, the intensity of the storm dissipates. Schubert’s music was written for the fortepiano, and while it sounded grander on a Steinway, I could feel it struggle to fill the potential of the modern concert grand. In some of the denser segments of the Schubert sonata, I would have preferred more clarity of line and better separation of registers, something that Cooper had done admirably, but perhaps hearing it played on a fortepiano would be the icing on the cake. Maybe, too, a less sonorous tone would encourage tighter spooling of the first and last movements, which tend to sprawl a bit. It would be very interesting to hear Schubert on the ‘Barenboimklavier’, which was developed by Barenboim to play Schubert’s sonatas.

Cooper did not offer an encore, and the audience was probably all wrung out after so much German Romanticism. Nevertheless, it was quite startling to once again see an English dame (Cooper has a CBE, just one rank short of a Dame Commander) standing before us, in her perfect hair and governess poise!

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