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
6 Comments

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.


Classical music: Bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile plays J.S. Bach – and earns raves.

October 27, 2013
3 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

The brilliantly eclectic mandolin player Chris Thile (below, in a photo by Branley Gutierrez) ) is hot these days.

I recently heard Thile – who has been a member of the bluegrass bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers — live on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and also saw that Wisconsin Public Radio was offering his new recording as a gift during its recently completed — and successfully completed — fall pledge drive.

Chris Thile CR Branley Gutierrez

Thile’s new album for Nonesuch Records features his playing of solo violin sonatas and partitas by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Thile says he was inspired directly by the recording that Belgian violinist Arthur Grumiaux did of the solo violin sonatas and partitas decades ago for Philips. It is performance that The Ear, along with so many other critics, put right on the top of the list.

Arthur Grumiaux

But Thile also says he was heavily influenced by Canadian pianist and legend Glenn Gould – well, which Bach player wasn’t, one way or the other? Thile especially names Gould’s second version of the famous “Goldberg” Variations as a milestone in his life and career.

Glenn Gould old

To be fair, I still prefer the original violin version to the mandolin version.

But I have to admit that Thile’s playing and interpretations of Bach’s difficult music are miracles unto themselves. And unusual transcriptions are perfectly in keeping with the aesthetic and practice of Baroque era composers as well as Romantics like Franz Liszt and Ferrucio Busoni. Just listen to the YouTube video at the bottom of Chris Thile playing Bach’s complete Sonata No. 1 in G minor on the mandolin.

Here is a wonderful comprehensive and personal profile and background story to Chris Thile’s concert in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, written by Steve Smith, that appeared in The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/22/arts/music/chris-thile-will-play-sonatas-and-partitas-at-zankel-hall.html?_r=0

Here is an illuminating link to a conversation that Thile had on NPR with host Rachel Martin:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/08/14/210524386/chris-thile-looks-back-to-bach

And here is a link to the New York Times’ review of that concert (below, in a photo by Tina Fineberg) by critic Vivien Schweitzer:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/24/arts/music/chris-thile-on-mandolin-at-zankel-hall.html

Chris Thile at Zankel Hall CR Tina Fineberg for NYT

What do you think of Chris Thile and his mandolin Bach?

Do you have a favorite solo violin partita or sonata by J.S. Bach?

The Ear wants to hear.


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