The elderly writer (author of two biographies of Pushkin’s contemporaries, Griboyedov and Lermontov) for whom I work on Mondays, gave me a CD of one of Imogen Cooper’s ‘Schubert Live’ recordings last week. He chose it, knowing my love (and practice) of piano music, especially that of Schubert, Chopin and Beethoven, and it is just one of many fine recordings he has either loaned or gifted me over the years of our acquaintance.
I never got to any of Imogen Cooper’s recent Schubert recitals on the Southbank, which, according to the reviews, were very fine. Much as I love live music, concert-going these days is proving to be something of a logistical nightmare because of my teaching schedule. Some of the best concerts I have missed this past year have been on a Wednesday or Thursday evening, both days when I teach too late for me to hop on a train to spend the evening at the Wigmore, Cadogan or QE Hall.
So, I was thrilled when Laurence produced the Imogen Cooper CD the other day, with a barked order to “listen to it and tell me what you think of it”. Clearly imagining that I spend the rest of my days, when not engaged in doing his correspondence and filing, lolling on the sofa drinking Lapsang Souchong and listening to Schubert et al, he rang me the very next morning to find out what I thought of it. I confessed I had not had a chance to listen to it.
It takes me just over an hour to commute from my home in SW London to Notting Hill where Laurence lives. That time is often spent reading or listening to music on my iPhone. For commuting, my favourite music tends to be some uplifting Handel songs and arias (sung by Ian Bostridge), a good helping of Scarlatti’s sonatas, the complete Haydn piano sonatas (played by Marc Andre Hamelin) or a mix called “Oddments” which includes pieces as diverse as John Adams’s China Gates, a Bach Sarabande, Stravinsky’s Les Cinq Doigts or the Dvorak ‘Dumky’ Piano Trio (the connection is that all the pieces feature a piano!). Today, I forgot my book and instead spent the entire journey grazing the Imogen Cooper Schubert Live Vol 3 album. I say “grazing” because I admit I did not listen to everything – I wanted to be able to give Laurence my general impression of the album. I loved the twelve German dances which open it: here, in microcosm, are all Schubert’s shifting moods, from playful dancing through grandiose to plaintive and poignant. Even in these miniatures, Imogen Cooper makes every single note count, and every note seems thoughtfully and carefully placed. She demonstrates immaculate pedalling, especially in the D899 Impromptus, where even in the rapid, scalic, cascading No 2, every single note can be heard and valued. I did not listen to the D960 B flat sonata, but I have every confidence that this too is played with conviction, thought and meaning. It’s a wonderful album and I can thoroughly recommend it – almost as good as actually being there!
Imogen Cooper is an acknowledged fine Schubert-player, and also a one-time pupil of Brendel, arguably, also a fine Schubert-player. A few years ago, when interviewed on Radio 3 for the ‘At The Piano series’, she told an amusing anecdote about the first time she played for Brendel. She struck the first note (it may well have been of a Schubert sonata) and he immediately said “Stop! Do it again!”. This process was repeated at least twenty times, while he paced around the room behind her, considering what he had heard. Eventually, when he was satisfied, he allowed her to continue – but only to the next note. I sometimes quote this story to my students, when I am being particularly nit-picking and want them to consider carefully what they are doing instead of charging through a piece without really listening to it.