Long recognised worldwide as a player of virtuosity and poise, it’s hard to pigeon-hole British pianist Imogen Cooper, though she has undoubtedly made her mark with her interpretations of classical repertoire (her ‘Schubert Live’ recordings have received much critical acclaim). Her programme today reflected her commitment to repertoire beyond the great Viennese triumvirate of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, opening with a selection of Debussy’s Préludes from Book 2, and closing with one of the most ravishing of Chopin’s works, the Fourth Ballade. The filling between these delicious thick-cut slices was Beethoven’s moody Piano Sonata Op 31, no.2, traditionally called The Tempest.

© Sussie Ahlburg
© Sussie Ahlburg

First performed in Paris in 1913, Debussy’s second book of Preludes were among his last piano works and, like the first book, are works of dazzling pianistic impressions: mists, a moonlit terrace, the gate of the Alhambra. As Imogen Cooper said in her pre-concert interview, “I’ve chosen them primarily because of the contrast within themselves”, and this was very evident in her performance, from the soft, rhythmic figures and sound-wash of complex harmonies of 'Brouillards', with its vague mist-veiled images and haunting mood, to the ‘strummed’ notes and distinctly Andalucian expressiveness of 'La puerto del vino', and the filigree chromaticism of the languourous 'La terrasse des audiences au clair de lune'. Each piece was a complete sound-picture, yet linked by the suggestion these were ‘musical postcards’. Meanwhile, 'Les tierces alternées', literally a study in alternating thirds, which looks forward to Debussy’s Études in its intense concentration on a single musical interval, was bubbling, humorous and elegant, the direction in the score that the music should be played “lightly and without dryness” (i.e. with pedal) perfectly executed.

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Opus 31 No. 2 comes from his ‘middle period’ sonatas, and is a turbulent piece in D minor. It opens mysteriously with recitative-like measures before moving into stormy passages with rapid changes in tone, technique and tempo. Imogen Cooper managed these skilfully, with an ambitious tempo, which emphasised the frenzied, agitated mood of the movement. The recitative sections were bathed with misty pedalling, moments of calm within the storm, heard as if from far away.

The middle movement was hymn-like, measured and dignified, with a singing purity in its melodic lines, and a peaceful tempo that never plodded. In the final movement, its speed and motion said to be inspired by a horse galloping past the composer’s window, the continuous flow of semiquavers (which some pianists choose to take at a rollicking tempo) was slightly restrained, allowing the plaintive and passionate melodic lines to ring out, while highlighting the full force of the movement’s climaxes.

After the storms of Beethoven, Chopin’s Nocturne in D flat, Opus 27 No. 2 was graceful, languid and dreamy, the melody floating above a serene semi-quaver accompaniment, with some beautifully articulated fiorituras.

The opening of the Fourth Ballade retained the air of calm from the Nocturne, with its luminous, bell-like repeated notes in C major, before moving into more troubled waters via a plangent, long-spun theme in the home key of F minor, a theme which returns, ornamented and expanded, later in the piece. Like its companion-pieces, the Fourth Ballade is full of contrasting material: nocturne-like decorations, lyrical melodic lines, soaring climaxes, suspenseful silence. Imogen Cooper handled all these elements with great subtlety and poetry, bringing elegance and passion to Chopin’s writing, and proving that she is equally at home with romantic repertoire as she is with classical or modern.

As if to confirm this point, her encore, the ‘Black Key’ Etude, was played with virtuosic flare, sparkling and joyful.