Pianist Imogen Cooper eager for return visit with Music of the Baroque

Fri Sep 30, 2011 at 5:46 pm

By Michael Quinn

Imogen Cooper will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor and Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy” to open Music of the Baroque’s season.

The opening concert of Music of the Baroque’s 41st season marks the return after a three-year hiatus of an irregular but always eagerly anticipated visitor, when pianist Imogen Cooper joins her English compatriot Jane Glover on stage for a program that charts the progression from the Classical era of Mozart into the very different nascent Romanticism of Beethoven.

One of the most elegant and imaginative pianists of her generation, Cooper comes to the First United Methodist Church in Evanston, and the Harris Theater at the start of a fall schedule that will see her touring throughout her native England and further afield in Japan. She returns to Chicago to renew her relationship with an orchestra she describes as “a fine group of people who love working – which is not always a given with some orchestras – which is testimony not only to them but to Jane [Glover] and the enthusiasm with which she approaches everything.”

Cooper and Glover go back, the soloist recalls, “a very long time, perhaps even too long to think about!” The pair struck up a particularly fruitful partnership during Glover’s tenure as music director of the London Mozart Players in the late 1980s.

Especially appealing in the prospect of her return to Chicago, she says, is the lack of doctrinaire music-making in both her baton-wielding colleague and the Music of the Baroque orchestra towards repertoire that is all too often mired in rigid period-instrument orthodoxies. The sensibility appeals to a pianist who herself eschews any hint of dogma in her own performances.

“Like the best orchestras, they’ve taken the most important elements of phrasing, articulation and, particularly, vibrato, from the period but don’t overdo it. And they don’t go the whole hog: they don’t play completely without vibrato. My own tempi have become a lot more fluid than they used to be, and it’s a pleasure to play with an orchestra that can respond to that while retaining their own character.”

The partnership could hardly have chosen two more dramatic and contrasting works to usher in the new season than Mozart’s stormy but perennially popular Piano Concerto No. 20 and Beethoven’s rumbustious and less often heard Choral Fantasy.

“The piano concerto is a Don Giovanni-inspired piece, and one of only two that Mozart composed in a minor key,” says Cooper. “He wrote nothing else like it in the concerto form and it is extraordinary. I played it a lot in my younger years but have only come back to it in the last three years, and I absolutely adore it.”

From the very first bar, it is a piece that presents a series of robust challenges to both orchestra and soloist.

“It’s a passionate, direct, questing, rather dark work,” says Cooper. “As soon as it starts, the orchestra plunge us into Don Giovanni-like Hell, but when the piano makes its first appearance, it is making a completely different comment. It’s only a couple of pages later that I join in the whole tempest, almost as if I’m trying to find a bridge into it.”

The maelstrom of the first movement gives way, she adds, to the tumult of the second, “where, after a plangent opening you are thrown into that central section where you realize that all Hell is being let loose again, or at the very least, some major questioning and storms.”

While the second movement is typical of Mozart’s pitting of piano and orchestra in his concertos, the D minor is all but unique in its combustibly expressive working out of the relationship. “It’s rare you get sections that are so completely contrasted as here. But in the last movement, after the large cadenza – which is itself something relatively rare in Mozart’s last movements – you suddenly switch into D major, and suddenly you find yourself in the last act of an opera.”

Although refusing to be drawn on detail, Cooper says that concertgoers can expect “something a little bit special with it, if we can pull it off!” Which is not, she quickly adds, to give undue prominence to what is being planned. “With this piece, you need to leave the music relatively unadorned. With all the sturm und drang elsewhere, you don’t need to clutter things up too much.”

Some of Mozart’s explosive energy, albeit in a markedly different guise, finds an echo in the post-intermission piece, the rarely heard Choral Fantasy by Beethoven, described by Cooper as “a wonderfully joyous work with some incredibly simple writing and a certain amount of virtuosity that should be great fun.”

With one Beethovenian flourish after another, the work is a virtual high-wire act for the pianist, a prospect eagerly being looked forward to.

“I love it. I’m a real performer! I don’t think I’m the biggest show off there is, but actually communicating with hi-octane energy is one of the most life-giving things one can do. It’s great for me, and hopefully great for the musicians around me and the audience too.”

It’s a piece, the soloist says, “that can only make you smile.” But if the idea of Beethoven smiling sounds slightly startling, Cooper has no doubts about the famously scowling composer’s intentions.

“It’s C major. It’s sometimes melodically quite simple, and harmonically too. People sometimes misunderstand Beethoven. He’s more enthusiastic – in the sense of the word in it’s original Greek meaning: “possessed by a God” – and life-giving than is often recognized, as this piece proves. Anyone in Chicago who will be hearing it for the first time is going to be very pleasantly surprised by it.”

Imogen Cooper performs with Music of the Baroque 7:30 p.m. Sunday at First United Methodist Church, Evanston and 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater. baroque.org 
; 312-551-1414.

Michael Quinn is associate editor of  The Classical Review. A former deputy editor of Gramophone magazine, he lives in Northern Ireland and writes for a number of online and print titles.

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One Response to “Pianist Imogen Cooper eager for return visit with Music of the Baroque”

  1. Posted Oct 04, 2011 at 9:09 am by Roland Buck

    Why doesn’t Music from the Baroque play baroque music? They perform Haydn, Mozart, and even Beethoven, which is not baroque music, but play virtually no 17th century baroque music.

    A more accurate name for the organization would be Music from the 18th Century.

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