The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear praises British pianist Imogen Cooper and suggests you get to know her playing and recordings, including a debut on Chandos Records with music by Brahms and Schumann. Plus, check in on Day 9 of WYSO’s tour to Argentina. | August 1, 2014

ALERT: The Youth Orchestra, under the baton of University of Wisconsin-Madison conductor James Smith (below) and belonging to the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), is into Day 9 of its 10-day tour to Argentina. Here is a link to the live real-time blog about the tour:

wysotour2014.blogspot.com

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

There are a lot of talented women pianists playing out there right now.

Names that get mentioned frequently are usually the younger ones, the sexier and more glamorous and, therefore, more salable ones.

The glamorous, gifted and Grammy-nominated Yuja Wang –- she of the micro-skirts and stiletto heels and fabulously fast fingers — is right at the top of the heap.

yuja wang dress times 3

But then there is Van Cliburn Competition laureate Joyce Yang (below), Khatia Buniatishvili and Lola Astanova, all of whom draw headlines and turn in memorable performances. And there are many others I am sure I am leaving out.

Joyce Yang

But today The Ear wants to sing the praises of a mature woman and a seasoned musician who deserves far more public attention than she gets.

Why? Because she is simply one of the best pianists around.

I am talking about the Englishwoman Imogen Cooper (below).

Imogen Cooper

Cooper, who turns 65 on August 28, has been on the concert scene a long time. I first got to know her through her superb 3-volume set of late Schubert (sonatas and impromptus) on the Avie label. I have also heard a live recital of Ludwig Van Beethoven (Sonata Op. 101),  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Sonata in A Minor) and Maurice Ravel (“Miroirs” or Mirrors) and she did on the Wigmore Hall Live series, and it is nothing short of miraculous.

I have not heard her critically acclaimed art song or lieder recitals with Wolfgang Holzmair or her recordings of Mozart piano concertos. But I hope to do so soon. And I would like to hear her in music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Franz Joseph Haydn and Frederic Chopin.

But recently she also made her debut on Chandos records with a solo recital I have listened to over and over again, always with great pleasure and, since I am an avid amateur pianist, great envy. The Ear would sure like to hear her perform live in Madison.

I would say that The New York Times critic senior Anthony Tommasini got right to the heart of Cooper’s magisterial playing when, in his review of a live performance, he emphasized “virtuosity without dazzle” and talked about how her sensitive performances of Franz Joseph Haydn, Robert SchumannFranz Schubert and Thomas Ades were more thoughtfully impressive than performances of more overtly flashy and superficially difficult works by, say, Franz Liszt.

Here is a link to Tommasini’s review:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/11/arts/music/11coop.html?_r=0

The new CD, which has terrific sonic engineering, includes the seven “Fantasy Pieces” and the “Kreisleriana” of Robert Schumann as well as the too rarely heard piano version of the Theme and Variations from the String Sextet No. 1 by Johannes Brahms. (You can hear a mesmerizing live performance of the Brahms work at Hamline University in Minneapolis in a YouTube video at the bottom.)

Imogen Cooper Chandos CD1 cover

Cooper studied at the Paris Conservatory and then with Alfred Brendel, with whom she partnered on a recording of Mozart dual concertos, and the depth of her preparation shows.

Cooper possesses beautiful tone, brilliant technique and a keen musical mind that creates beautifully songful phrases and, at the same time, makes penetrating sense of the music.

I have tried to find out what her next release will be –- and when it will appear –- but to no avail. (Below, in a photo by Jennifer Taylor of The New York Times, Cooper is seen playing her recital at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in New York City.)

imogen cooper at the piano zankel

Here is a link to her website:

http://www.imogen-cooper.com

It is a great website to visit.

It has a lot of video and audio samples of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Janacek and Chopin. It has a lot of photos, although curiously none at the piano. It has lots of interviews and reviews. It includes her favorite historic recordings by other pianists and musicians. It has a biography and a list of appearances.

Read it and you will be impressed.

How does a talent like Cooper’s fly under the radar and remain relatively unknown? That is one of the mysteries of marketing. But clearly youth sells in Youth Culture.

That said, you should listen to this debut album and follow her career.

Are there any other Imogen Cooper fans out there?

What recordings of hers do you prefer?

The Ear wants to hear.


6 Comments »

  1. Extraordinarily gifted, mature, AND glamorous! I’d take Ms. Cooper over Yang or Wang any day.

    Or evening.

    Comment by Anthony D — August 2, 2014 @ 9:47 am

    • Dear Anthony,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      I assure you, you are NOT alone!
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 2, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

  2. Youth sells because it is what is sold, or offered for sale. Look at those two Asian kids, one blind, one sighted, that won the Van Cliburn some years ago. They won because they were kids. There was a LOT of mature artistry on those stages at that competition, but the young people could be coerced, manipulated, whatever word you want to to use, into doing the Big Tour and associated musical indentured servitude more easily than someone who is in their later 20’s, and knows what they want, and what they are, and are NOT, willing to do in music.
    Kids, prodigies, and the Young and Beautiful have always been the show-stoppers and starters. Ms. Cooper is someone I should have heard of but have not, of course. She plays Ravel,and so I will of course, investigate, and purchase a hard-copy CD of that music, on principle alone, unheard.
    Age makes for the life and musical experiences that turn notes into more than sound, more than technical display, more than even the composition of a master brought to life. It makes Music into that force which sustains us, brings us light and joy, and keeps us young rather than just showing us what young people can do. They will have their chance to display staying power, if they can withstand the vicissitudes of the Music business.
    MBB

    Comment by Michael BB — August 1, 2014 @ 8:52 am

  3. Thanks for this recommendation, Jake. Intelligent and thoughtful musicianship trumps showmanship every time. I wonder if the popularity of today’s virtuoso performers reflects our culture’s obsession with athleticism? We’re less interested in good art . . .

    Comment by Susan Fiore — August 1, 2014 @ 8:16 am

    • Hi Susan,
      As always, you make good sense and find great connections.
      I think you are right to bring up sports.
      But flashy virtuosity has always been prized, even back to the days of Liszt and Paganini and into the Baroque (Bach and Telemann as organists, plus many violinists including Leclair and Tartini) and even earlier, especially for singers.
      What do other readers say?
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      Best,
      Jake

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 1, 2014 @ 9:21 am

      • Valentina Lisitsa comes to mind. Her playing of the Liszt Totandanz is absolutely frightening, and requires just the sort of physical and musical courage that the True Virtuoso must muster up.
        Most music does not require nearly that level of sheer courage. I like slow, rich music. I also like a performance that takes one’s breath away. There is room for all. A balanced program has some of both of these aspects, as well as music of several eras.
        A specialty program has a narrower focus, and one knows what one is getting when one buys a ticket to that kind of concert.
        MBB

        Comment by Michael BB — August 1, 2014 @ 4:08 pm


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