Imogen Cooper is clearly putting a lot of thought into the construction of her concert programmes. Both halves of her Monday recital started with a shorter, quasi-introductory piece, followed by a more substantial composition. The composer’s lifespan fitted perfectly within one hundred years (Schubert being born in 1797 and Brahms’ death in 1897); in fact, the whole concert was a showcase of Romanticism from the German-speaking countries. The various items in the recital were interconnected in several ways, Clara Schumann in particular being the enigmatic link between the first three works.

Imogen Cooper © sam e studios
Imogen Cooper
© sam e studios

The fact that Clara got secretly engaged to Robert Schumann in 1837 is pretty well known; the frequent references to their intense relationship in the composer’s music perhaps less so. Yet allusions to Clara and their future life together are aplenty in the Novellette no. 2, which opened the concert. Other pianists might have taken the composer’s instruction for this movement – Äußerst rasch und mit Bravour (extremely fast and with bravado) – more literally, but the rapid passages under Cooper’s fingers were still vigorously pellucid, and I have never heard the consistent pianissimo at the return of the first section so tenderly, yet distinctly executed. It intimated many other, equally secretive pianissimos for the rest of the evening.

Schumann’s 18 character pieces collectively named as Davidsbündlertänze, Op.6 followed as an appropriate segue, although hardly anything in that title is correct, at least in a historical sense. Only a few movements of this cycle could be called dances, and the opus number unusually doesn’t refer to an early work in Schumann’s output – much more to his devotion, as it is a reference to Clara’s own composition, Soirées musicales, Op.6, from which the opening bars of Robert’s work are a direct quotation. To increase the confusion even further, the title page of the 1837 first edition named “Florestan & Eusebius” as the authors instead of Schumann.

Oh, Florestan and Eusebius... Schumann’s favourite alter egos, appearing in his writings, in his music criticism and, frequently, in his music. These pseudonyms covering vastly different personalities – the impulsive and passionate Florestan and the pensive, gentle Eusebius – were willingly claimed and artistically used by the composer. Modern science might even call this split personality. The aforementioned first edition (seldom used today) attributed every individual movement according to its character to Florestan or Eusebius, sometimes even to both of them, not to mention delightful inscriptions such as the one heading no. 9, according to which: “Hereupon Florestan stopped, and his lips trembled sorrowfully”. This and similar captions raise the intriguing question whether Florestan and Eusebius – prominent persons of the fictitious League of David – would be the authors or the protagonists of the cycle. Perhaps to avoid such questions, later editions simplified the captions and took away all mention of the pair.

Imogen Cooper approached both characters with the empathy of a caring psychiatrist. No. 2, a typical Eusebius movement, was indeed mesmerisingly innig (intimate) as its ascription required. The quiet simplicity of no. 5, Einfach was equally poignant, while the good-humoured no. 12, Mit Humor suited Florestan’s imaginary capricious nature perfectly. I did detect a small bias on the soloist’s part, as if ultimately Eusebius, the introverted dreamer, would be closer to her heart and (unsplit) personality.

A whole range of Johannes Brahms’ symphonic and chamber music compositions were transcribed in the nineteenth century by the composer and others for piano four hands, including his String Sextet no. 1. This was the first time I had the chance to hear that sextet’s slow movement, opening the second half of the concert, called here Theme and Variations in D minor, in a solo piano transcription. According to the programme booklet, Brahms made the arrangement and dedicated it to – who else? – Clara Schumann; yet, try as I might, I did not feel convinced by the arrangement. For want of the extraordinary string sonorities, the heart-warming vibrato of the opening solo viola theme, the torrent of parallel cello octaves or those descending pizzicato interpolations, the emotional rollercoaster as a natural part of the original sextet could not been evoked.

That inimitable German word, innig, offered the link between Cooper’s Schumann and Schubert interpretation. In Franz Schubert’s Piano sonata in B flat major the scale of emotions was just as extensive as the soloist’s choice of tone colours – extensive, but almost without exception understated. Her sound excelled not so much in roaring outbursts but in the famously low trill murmurs of the first movement or the resigned serenity of the Andante sostenuto, through gentle gestures and wisps of whispers. Cooper succeeded where only a few would in opening the imaginary gate between artist and the outside world and inviting her audience into the most intimate sphere of Schubert’s dying 31-year-old genius. Her exquisite musicality made it temporarily possible not to feel anguished about Gaza, MH17, James Foley and famine in South Sudan. Thank you, Imogen.