06 Oct 2009

Imogen Cooper's Birthday at the Wigmore Hall

This wasn't an ordinary concert but something very special. The Wigmore Hall was honouring Imogen Cooper on her 60th birthday. She is greatly loved here, both as soloist and as partner in song recitals. The atmosphere was electric. The house was packed, with many famous pianists and singers in the audience. It was a historic occasion, but it felt like a party among friends.

Imogen Cooper is a superlative artist, so it might seem unfair to comment on her appearance, but she looked truly radiant, her face lit up with heartfelt happiness. Few deserve a tribute like this more than she, for she’s formidably dedicated. She could easily have chosen a programme to showcase her skills as soloist, with a special gift for Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. Instead, she chose to highlight others with whom she’s worked with. “I didn’t feel like working too hard”, she joked, in typical self effacing manner.

Imogen Cooper was a child prodigy sent to Germany, France and Austria, where she developed her formidable technique. Being isolated, she turned to Romantic poetry and song. Her affinity for Lieder was formed at an early age and is highly intuitive. Wolfgang Holzmair used to say he couldn’t imagine working with a pianist who didn’t instinctively live the texts as well as the music. Then he met Cooper and the rest is history. Theirs is one of the most enduring partnerships in the Lieder world.

It would be almost impossible to imagine an Imogen Cooper tribute without involving Holzmair in some way.Together, they’ve pioneered the songs of another great Lieder relationship, Robert and Clara Schumann and have mnade a notable recording. The two sets of songs by Robert Schumann chosen here date from 1840, the year Robert and Clara were finally able to marry, which inspired an explosion of song. Lieder aus dem Schenkenbuch Im Divan I and II (op 26 nos 5 and 6) are droll songs about getting drunk and louche, performed with folksy humour. In Venezianisches Lied I and II *(op 25 nos. 17 and 18), Cooper’s playing evoked the gentle rocking of oars steadily pacing through lagoons, as Holzmair sings of gondoliers and serenades on moonlit balconies. Clara’s songs *O Lust, O Lust *op 23 no 6) and *Die stille Lotosblume (op 13 no 6) have less obvious character, surprisingly as Clara was the first great female pianist to have an international career. Nonetheless, Holzmair and Cooper presented her songs with conviction.

As a treat, suitable for the party atmosphere, Holzmair and Cooper did a playful encore - a song from an operetta of the 1930’s by Robert Stolz. It’s a joyful ditty about dancing and happiness. Stolz was a lavishly lucky man who made and lost and remade several fortunes. At the age of 60, bald, broke and exiled, he was arrested in Paris when the Germans occupied. A few weeks before, he’d met a beautiful 19 year old heiress, who promptly sprung him from prison and married him. She still lives in Vienna, keeping his flame. Another reason to celebrate !

imogen-cooper.gifImogen Cooper [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega courtesy Askonas Holt]

Cooper’s partnership with Mark Padmore is more recent. Holzmair and Padmore sang Mendelssohn duets for tenor and baritone (op 52, nos 1,2 amnd 3) followed by Wasserfärht (op 50 no 4), where the voices bob up and down, like waves on the open sea while the piano melody surges forth like the ship in the poem. Padmore followed the set with four songs from Schubert. I’m very fond of Padmore’s work in baroque repertoire, but in Lieder he’s rather understated, though on an evening as genial as this it didn’t matter. Cooper provided plenty of vigour and personality. In *Die Sterne *(D939) she played the twinkling “starlight” motifs vividly, and the song came to life.

Imogen Cooper and Sophie Wieder-Atherton played a group of Janáček and Schumann pieces for piano and cello. The combination brought out the folk tunes both used, but in very different ways. Most of these pieces favoured the cello, so Wieder-Atherton took the lead, Cooper provided sensitive support.

Getting together a group of musicans like this was a wonderful opportunity to present repertoire normally beyond the scope of a song or conventional piano recital. This was a rare chance to hear Schubert’s Auf dem Strom (D 943). Voice, piano and cello weave together in counterpoise. Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis then played the four hand Fantasy in F minor (D940). Both works arevery late Schubert, both performed in the composer’s presence. Schubertiades were intimate, friendly affairs, where people got together to enjoy good music in a convivila mood : perfect for a celebration like this.

Appropriately the encore brought everyone together. It was Brahm’s Liebesliederwalzer no 3,. “I wonder they we thought of that?”, quipped Cooper with a cheerful smile. Then Holzmair and Padmore began to sing. “O die Frauen ! O die frauen ! wie sie Wonne tauen. Wäre lang ein Mönch geworden, wäre nicht die Frauen !” (Women are bliss, if not for them, we’d be monks)

Anne Ozorio


Mendelssohn : Ich wollt’, meine Liebe ergösse sich, Abschiedslied der Zugvögel, Gruß, Wasserfärht
Schubert : An die Laute, Abendstern, Daß sie hier gewesen, Die Sterne
Clara Schumann : O Lust, O Lust, Die stille Lotosblume
Robert Schumann : Lieder aus dem Schenkenbuch im Divan i and II, Venezianische Lieder I and II
Janáček : Pohádka no 1, 2 and 3
Robert Schumann : Stücke im Volkston 2 and 3
Schubert : Auf dem Strom, Fantasy in F minor for piano duet