Monday, June 15, 2020

Wigmore Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Time frame: 1822-23. Mingling place of middle-Europeans and exotic bloods. Biedermeier aesthetic. Franz I’s post-Napoleonic Vienna two centuries ago. 1822. Beethoven’s A-flat Sonata Opus 110 published (July). Eleven Bagatelles Opus 119 compiled. Work on the Missa solemnis, Diabelli Variations and Ninth Symphony. 1823. Schubert’s Twelve Deutsche Tänze (Ländler) D790 composed (January-May). In early 1823 Schubert had quarters in the Göttweigerhof (modern-day Spiegelgasse/Göttweigergasse). A mile-and-a-half up the road towards to St Stephen’s lived Beethoven (Gumpendorferstrasse). Neither old master (“the town air has an injurious effect on my entire system”) nor young dreamer (“the circumstances of my health do not permit my leaving the house”) were in good shape.

You wouldn’t expect anything but meditated music-making from Imogen Cooper. Given to wonderment, rarely a smile, striking a stance oddly Leonskaja-like, the score on a tablet before her, she commenced with twelve Schubert dances (out of the hundreds of gems he left) first published by Brahms in 1864. Following through the music’s pivot-linked keys, she played the set as a continuous sequence. Nothing sentimentalised, strong left-hand octaves, fulsome harmonies, romantically enhanced pedalling. She touched nostalgia in the seventh, offered a waltz Chopin never wrote in the eighth, and bade a dark, smoky farewell with the twelfth.

Beethoven’s Bagatelles Opus 119 traversed the mercurial. I’ve always found her moderated way with No.3 (dotted crotchet per bar fluctuating around the mid-sixties) irresistible. She found a delicious playfulness in No.2, resolve and timing caprice in No.5, improvisation and bravura climax in No.7, Schumannesque foreshadowings in No.9, whimsy in No.10, prayer in No.11. With wide dynamic scaling and bigness of attack, she elevated these “[Pleasing] Trifles … in Various Styles” (Clementi’s original Cheapside title page) beyond schoolroom or parlour, inviting us to consider tantalisingly unexpected perspectives.

Forthrightness, a certain chiselled detachment (the ‘Klagender Gesang’ episodes of the Finale), toughness of musical argument, underlined Opus 110. One admired the limpid quality of the first movement; the simple phrasing of the opening subject (for many pianists as challenging to balance as the start of the G-major Piano Concerto); the ‘organ’ octaves of the concluding fugue. Not everything came off – the second movement proving stretched in places, and the stretto of the Finale (as it often does) losing clarity and placement. Tovey, back in 1931, cautioned that this treacherous Meno Allegro (etwas langsamer) should begin “decidedly slower”, and that (structurally) it would be “utterly unthinkable” for the closing page or so to be faster than the original tempo of the fugue itself. Having set herself a fluid tempo of around dotted crotchet = 72 (give or take), Cooper’s briskly seen-off Meno Allegro and her accelerating coda reaching 82+ was unsettling – even if the great open-pedal peroration had all that was rightly glorious about it.

Encore: ‘Dobrou noc!’ (Good Night!), the C-major seventh movement from Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path, Cooper pausing to speak of the “visceral connection” she senses between the Moravian and Schubert – “music” paraphrasing Beethoven, “from the heart to the heart”. Subtly water-coloured … candlelight dying into fade-out.