Pianist Cooper shows sensitive artistry in Celebrity Series recital

November 6, 2016 at 12:09 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Pianist Imogene Cooper performed Saturday night for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Sussie Ahlburg

Pianist Imogene Cooper performed Saturday night for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Sussie Ahlburg

Imogen Cooper remains one of the leading pianists of her generation. Her performances, especially those of Classical and Romantic repertoire, invariably glow with an expressive nuance.

That was the case with her Celebrity Series recital at Jordan Hall Saturday night, which featured the English pianist in a colorful range of music by Schumann, Janáček, Debussy, de Falla, and Albéniz.

Robert Schumann is one of her specialties, and Cooper’s rendition of the composer’s Davidsbündlertänze was remarkable for its sensitivity. The eighteen sections of this work are a dialogue between the fiery and lyrical sides of Schumann’s musical personality. The set, moreover, reflects his polemical criticism, capturing the triumph of the League of David—composers like Schumann who were forward thinking in their style—against musicians who wrote in empty, clichéd forms.

Cooper plays with a subtle touch and creamy tone well suited to the poetic sides of this work. While her technical command is solid, it isn’t flawless, and the impassioned movements of Schumann’s piece had a tendency to sound hazy in a few places. In others, the passages came off bluntly and lacked the dramatic power one usually experiences in performances of the piece. The softer movements were the highlights, with the most beautiful playing coming in the seventeenth movement of the set, “Wie aus der Ferne,” which Cooper played with a singing quality.

The opener, which featured selections from Book 1 of Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path, rang with the same delicacy. This work reflects the musical style by Schumann and Grieg, though the music has the soft colors of Debussy.

That was the way Cooper approached her selections. “The Virgin of Frydek,” which unfolds in a simple, folk-like melody, was spacious, with Cooper imbuing the fuller sections of the piece with a sense of freedom and rubato. The lines of “They chattered like swallows” were silky, more of a quiet conversation than chatter, “and “The little owl has not flown away” maintained a radiant lyricism. Cooper supplied the hymn-like theme with the same soft touch that marked the best of her Schumann performance.

After intermission, Cooper offered music inspired by Spanish themes.

The habanera rhythm runs through the short pieces by de Falla, Debussy, and Albéniz that made up the first set. In de Falla’s Homenaje “pour le tombeau de Claude Debussy” it moved with a gentle swagger, and the guitar-like riffs sounded in a shiny blur under Cooper’s fingers. The lines of Albéniz’s “El Albaicín” spun from a repetitive musical germ, taking on handfuls of shimmering chords. Cooper’s performances of the chant-like lines that come towards the end of the piece were haunting. In the Debussy pieces the habanera is more persistent, sounding high in the register in “La soirée dans Grenade” and earthy in its resonant depths in “La puerta del Vino.” Here, Cooper proved an elegant colorist and painted her scenes with bright, even dramatic flair.

In the three pieces from Albéniz’s Iberia, Cooper worked in dreamy textures, the music conjuring a landscape as if viewed from a distance. The interrupting dissonances at the end of “Evocación” hovered over the stage in a cloud of overtones. “El Puerto” was a playful dance with delicate rubato shading, and “Fête-Dieu à Seville” conjured a festive street march, which Cooper built to a celebratory climax.

A single encore, the first of Federico Mompou’s Cancion y Danzas, returned Cooper to the soft, elegant sound world that she explored all evening.

The next Celebrity Series event will feature Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in music by Boulez and Mahler 8 p.m. Friday at Symphony Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617- 482-6661

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Pianist Cooper shows sensitive artistry in Celebrity Series recital”

  1. Posted Nov 09, 2016 at 6:15 pm by Michael

    I think you’re being too generous/forgiving towards her Davidsbündlertänze performance. “Hazy” isn’t a strong enough word. The whole thing was marred by memory slips and wrong notes. Not sure if this was just an off night for her, but this was such a letdown for me. I left at the intermission – something I had never done prior to this performance. I had more anxiety than pleasure listening to her, as I couldn’t help but wonder “where is she gonna screw up this time?”

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