Imogen Cooper presented both a grand, yet intimate programme of works at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, in which Robert Schumann formed the common link. Alongside works by Schumann himself, Cooper presented compositions by Clara Wieck and Brahms, as well as Schubert's Piano Sonata no.21 in B flat major D960, one of his last three sonatas, which Schumann worked tirelessly to bring to publication.

Imogen Cooper © Sussie Ahlberg
Imogen Cooper
© Sussie Ahlberg

Cooper's introductory selection alternated between works by Wieck and Schumann from the 1830s (before they were married) and highlighted most beautifully the musical influence that flowed between the two. An immediate example was Clara's Romance in B flat major, Op.22 no.3, which ends touchingly in the tonic minor and exhibits the sometimes profound and unexpected sentimentality that arises from the combination of musical ideas and overall structure within Robert's music. An implicit link was made by Cooper as she commenced Schumann's own famous Romance in F sharp major, Op.28 no.2 without a break.

This opening pair of works set an intimate tone that went on to permeate the remainder of the programme. The whims and departures of Schumann's Humoresque in B flat, Op.20 (an infamously inaccurately named work) and Brahms's solemn Theme and Variations in D minor, Op.18 were kept within the boundaries of introspection and navel-gazing by Cooper. The large space of the hall felt immediately smaller as a result and at times I felt as though I could begin to understand the fundamental difference which gave rise to Schumann's objections to Liszt; for example, whilst Liszt often keeps one eye on his audience, Schumann is invariably more preoccupied with himself. Under Cooper's hands, the outbursts of the Humoresque maintained a reflective and personal undertone, as though Schumann intended to express his fleeting, excitable tangents only to a close audience. The Humoresque was capricious and flirtatious; dramatic and intriguing. But not humorous.

With these foundations laid, Schubert's sonata - the last instrumental work he wrote before his death - formed a fitting conclusion. As Claudio Arrau once commented: “This is a work written in the proximity of death… one can feel it from the very first theme”. Again, Cooper played this quietly monumental work in a probing, meditative manner, as if it were an exercise in gentle self-analysis. The first and second movements in particular were paced to allow for a somewhat natural poise and silence in those places at which they arrived in the music. At no point did they feel forced or out of place, but instead had a sense of the inevitable.

The afternoon was not without some light relief. Cooper returned to the stage to perform Schumann's “Vogel als Prophet” from Waldszenen, Op.82, as an encore, which she rounded off with a throwaway nonchalance befitting the piece. Perhaps there is some humorous potential in Schumann after all.

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