Schubert cycles are in the air: earlier this month pianist James Lisney’s wide-ranging ‘Schubertreise’ series reached its journey’s end at London’s Purcell Room, and on Saturday evening Imogen Cooper concluded her own survey of Schubert’s piano sonatas with a performance of the last three sonatas to a packed, attentive and highly appreciative Wigmore Hall audience.

Imogen Cooper © Tina Pluchino
Imogen Cooper
© Tina Pluchino

Schubert wrote the last three sonatas in the final few months before his death at 31, a time of astonishing difficulties and brilliant achievements, haunted by ill-health and poverty. Schubert numbered the sonatas sequentially, perhaps envisioning them as a cycle, and all three sonatas pay homage to Beethoven, the D.958 most overtly in its defiantly dramatic key of C minor. But while Beethoven’s sonatas grew more unconventional in their pattern of movements, Schubert’s sonatas display a classical structure of four movements, with the slow movement falling second. And while Beethoven’s final sonatas proclaim their composer’s continued existence, despite the exigencies of life and love, Schubert’s last sonatas speak more questioningly.

Imogen Cooper gave a persuasive account, from the darkly Beethovenian and neurotic D.958 in C minor through the sweetly nostalgic D.959 to the expansive serenity of the D.960 and its triumphant closing Presto. Cooper, an acclaimed Schubert interpreter, offers us Schubert in cool shadings, allowing an appreciation of the architecture of this music, while segueing effortlessly to richer, warmer hues, such as in the Adagio of the D.958, which recalls the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata in both its arresting cantabile melody and accompanying textures. She savours the composer’s unusual harmonic shifts and remote keys with expression and lyricism, and is alert to the ever-changing emotional landscape inherent in Schubert’s writing. Her understated stage presence allows the music to speak, drawing the listener into Schubert’s unique soundworld.

It was perhaps a pity that the concert was interrupted by two intervals, so that some of the impact of the musical and emotional contrasts between the D.958 and D.959 was lost in not hearing the sonatas side by side, but for reasons of stamina (of both performer and audience), each sonata occupied its own part of the concert. The magisterial opening of the D.958 was rather underplayed, as if Cooper was settling in to the music. No matter, for her account of the Andantino of the D.959, surely the most tragic movement Schubert ever wrote, was icily plaintive, a yearning tempo which vividly brought home the composer’s desolation, in particular in the return of the first subject, with its curious twining accompaniment and bell-like repeated figures. In the Scherzi of the D.959 and D.960, Mozartean clarity and crisp articulation combined with featherlike touch to create some of the most delightful and good-humoured movements of the entire performance.

The Sonata in B flat D.960 occupied the final section of the triptych. Harmoniously balanced, gently melancholic and imbued with a sense of acceptance, its spacious, valedictory opening movement is almost as long as an entire Beethoven piano sonata, and it plots its course like a great river flowing towards the sea. A gentle molto moderato tempo allowed us to bask in the music’s ethereal other-worldliness. It was thus a shame that Cooper curtailed Schubert’s ‘heavenly length’ by eschewing the exposition repeat: without the briefly unsettling darkness of the bass trill in the return, the magic of the bridge to the development section – three mysterious chords – was lost. The Andante was bleak and poignant, yet warmed by the rich tones and textures of the A major middle section. The Scherzo sparkled, its lightheartedness fleetingly interrupted by the darker trio. To the final movement, Cooper brought wit and elegance, opting for a slightly reined-in tempo, which gave a greater sense of Schubert’s acceptance of his fate, rather than grim resignation.

There were a number of issues with the piano, not least some rather curious harmonics during the D.960, but Cooper’s keen attention to variations of tone, tempo, tasteful pedaling and dynamic shading combined with her modest stage presence made for an absorbing, insightful and intimate performance.

****1