Arts concert review

Humorous yet poignant, Imogen Cooper delivers a charming performance

Cooper’s Boston piano recital debut is striking

7977 1706 imogen cooper credit sussie ahlburg
Regarded as one of the finest interpreters of Classical and Romantic repertoire, pianist Imogen Cooper is internationally renowned for her virtuosity and lyricism.
Sussie Ahlburg

Imogen Cooper, Piano presented by Celebrity Series of Boston
Performed by Imogen Cooper
New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall
Nov. 5, 2016

An evening listening to a solo piano recital by internationally renowned pianist Imogen Cooper is therapeutic for the soul. Cooper stepped out onto the stage, greeted warmly by applause. Her first piece, “The Virgin of Frydek” by Leoš Janáček, was performed with sublime tenderness, a sensitivity that is carried through her performance.

Where she really begins to shine is in portraying the different sides of Robert Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. The 18 pieces in the series are expressive of various characters, rather than written for dance as the name suggests. It is a touching, intimate expression inspired by Schumann’s relationship with his eventual wife Clara Wieck, with each piece describing one or both of the two personas, Florestan and Eusebius. The former symbolizes the headstrong side of Schumann’s character, while the latter expresses his gentler, poetic side.

Like in her other performances, the dichotomy of these characters is expressed distinctly, yet each piece never feels disjointed. One passage would flow into the next after a slight pause, with the atmosphere maintained by the fleeting final notes alone. As expected, her trademark lyricism shone through magnificently in the interplay between her hands, the stronger melody line carrying the piece’s emotions above the others’ delicate notes. The piano felt like it was singing, particularly in the charming passages that felt remarkably natural and brightly colored with her touch.

The series begins with “Lebhaft,” a lively yet warm introduction that never sounded harsh from Cooper. In “Mit Humor,” the melody line shines with brilliance, but soon followed by “Ungeduldig,” the atmosphere grew richer and emphatic. In the piece “Einfach,” the gentler notes and the crescendos were performed elegantly with her soft touch. Her interpretation still feels understated, despite the range in dynamics, giving her performance a soothing quality. The piece “Frisch” is probably where her notes shone the most, as the harmony between the left and right hands was just captivating with her style.

After the intermission, we move to Manuel de Falla’s Homenaje, suitable as an introduction to Claude Debussy’s works after interlude. Cooper performs Debussy’s “La soiree dans Grenade” with the same expressive style as her interpretation of Schumann, enlivening the mood. Moving from Debussy to Isaac Albéniz, she performs his flamenco-like piece “El Albaicín” with vigor and robustness, reminiscent of Spanish music.

We were slowly warmed up to Spanish music as she moved from French composer Debussy’s Spanish-influenced music to Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz. The piano arrangement was well thought out, as the shift felt organic and almost unnoticeable, despite the different structures and atmospheres of the performance’s first and second halves. Closing off the performance with another piece by Albéniz, Cooper performed “Fête-dieu à Seville” (“El Corpus en Sevilla”) with an epic ferocity and sharp staccatos that slowly died down to the final, solemn notes.

The highlight of her recital was her performance of Schumann, and the livelier second half carried the strength of her first. Perhaps she was warming up to the performance, but her later pieces caused her first selections from Janáček to seem demure and hesitant. This interpretation may have been intentional, but by the end, these first works felt almost forgotten, swept away by the dramatic second half.

Despite the shaky beginning, her understated, sensitive style still manages to range from resolute and bombastic to soothing and dulcet, peppered with deliberately humorous theatrics well-received by the audience — an amusing shake of the wrists, a grandiose sweep of the arm. These light-hearted and more informal aspects of her performance made the venue more intimate and homely, becoming assets rather than hindrances to an emotional performance that could not be carried by theatrics alone.