The ‘Time Unwrapped’ series at Kings Place continued with a piano recital on ‘Late Style’ with Imogen Cooper. ‘Late Style’, or Spätstil, was a concept first formulated by the imposingly difficult philosopher of aesthetics T.W. Adorno, who identified it explicitly with the late works of Beethoven, invoking the Op.110 sonata as its exemplar. Lateness describes, for Adorno, art and music at its most anti-social: transcendence and beatitude are traded for discontinuity, irony, the setting of the archaic beside the experimental. It describes music that is out of time, in both its manifestation of the last gasp of a creative life, and its disdain for conventions or norms. Late works are like dying stars: burning their last reserves of fuel whilst collapsing into something dense and impenetrable.

Imogen Cooper
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Haydn’s Sonata in C (Hob XVI/50) could be straightforward enough, and a less daring performer than Cooper might smooth over its eccentricities: the spectral, dreamlike use of the sustain pedal, the distracted reveries of the first movement, or the strangely abrupt arpeggios and attacks at the outset. This Haydn has wilder eyes than usual, yet does not want for a lyricism that was a little ghostly in Cooper’s delicate handling of the dynamics. 

The finale is where things really start to get out of hand: the lopsided phrases, abrupt modulations and silences: music losing its train of thought. There is humour, but it’s not the wittiness of Papa Haydn up to his old tricks: in Cooper’s hands it becomes absurd and disordered, almost Beckettian. It was rather a relief when it ended, which is to compliment Cooper’s lateral interpretive insights.  

Haydn’s ghostly sonorities were amplified in Thomas Adès’ 1992 piece Darknesse Visible, an ‘explosion’ of a John Dowland song (In Darknesse let mee dwell). It’s an essay in tintinnabulation, exploring the different fundamental sonic effects produced by the piano: prickly overtones from rapid shimmering in its most ethereal registers, and glowing deterioration of forceful sforzandi in its darker reaches. Cooper’s equipoised, trance-like performance describes the decay and rising darkness for which Downland’s text longs. 

Cooper segued directly from the dying embers of Adès' piece to the opening of Beethoven’s Op.110. The final note of Darknesse Visible is a G natural, which, when followed by the opening chord of the Beethoven, suggests a cadence resolving into A flat major, as if Adès had written an enormous upbeat to the sonata, impossibly but uncannily presaging it. 

The A flat Sonata is music of such intense privacy that to experience it feels like a form of trespass, especially so in Cooper’s inward and assiduous interpretation; the first movement had an understated glow that held together its discontinuous parts and flighty transitions. The syncopated, heavy-booted dancing of the Scherzo was where Cooper really seemed to let loose the boisterous eccentric Beethoven we know well; it’s music that thunders about in fits and starts, before petering out in a few hopeless final bars.  

The final movement is one of Beethoven’s strangest: two fugues preceded by a desolate arioso – whose pathos Cooper channelled with remarkable precision and restraint – and more chorale-like opening, whose desolate transition into the lament comes from a single repeated high A; it is impossible not to think of the deaf composer straining to hear it ring out. Cooper’s fugues began with a meditative prayer-like focus – counterpoint as coping mechanism – that broadened into defiance, though utterly without triumph. 

Schubert’s great Piano Sonata no. 19 in C minor, D.958, opens with a sense of formal purposefulness and drive that seems almost unassailable, at least for the first two movements, and Cooper’s first gestures were fierce and determined. But this wilful diatonicism is challenged by the daringly chromatic bass and risky modulations of the development, whose thematic architecture Cooper explicated with clarity and verve. So too was she scrupulous in setting out the dazzling harmonic inventions of the slow movement, an Adagio whose stillness control owes much to Beethoven, phrasing through Schubert’s meticulously calculated dissonances and resolutions. The Meneutto begins the slow disintegration of the more confident musical order articulated at the outset of the piece. It dances, but in a peculiarly circumspect way, and Cooper rendered with uneasy consternation spiralling melodic gestures that lead only to silence.

The tarantella finale has a mesmerising, maze-like architecture. Cooper was not manic, and this was no dance of death; this was cooler, more cerebral, sketching the music’s enigmatic guile, with its evasive chromaticism and tricksy hand-crossings. Some may crave little more madness in their Schubert, but Cooper weaves the thread that charts the sonata’s labyrinth, communicating the way this music constantly confronts us with dead ends and sudden turnings that lead nowhere; her late Schubert is a music of jerky juxtaposition, taking us to the heart of a most perplexing landscape.