In an age of fighter-pianists prattling off Chopin before breakfast, this is an enlightening release.
Imogen Cooper epitomises all that is refined, tasteful and thought-out. She's not obsessed with past masters. She wants to know Chopin himself, reaching for, as she puts it, “the suffering (and not always sympathetic, let us be honest) man and poet.” The heart of the text cleansed and pure, the nuts-and-bolts of the world he shaped and journeyed, is her grail. She has no time for the byroads, the cul-de-sacs, of handed-down tradition, nor the pitfalls of imitation.
Evaluating the scores afresh, Cooper enforces the currency of Chopin's voice, underlining just how little he cared for the vocabulary, cliché or fashion of his contemporaries. The music is burnished bright. Clarity, beautiful tone, declamation and bell-like projection are at a premium. Benefiting from the airy ambience of Snape Maltings and a responsive 2007 Hamburg Steinway, her phrases, tenor-voiced ones not least, ring out with a bel canto glow, each grace and roulade set in place with the precision yet micro-improvisation of the finest goldsmith. Sounds interweave, counterpoints converse, deep basses stir harmonic currents. Identifying her priorities, she comments on the need to drop inherited old habits; to question “basic things” such as structure (Chopin's classicism “we ignore at our peril”). Chiselled immediacy, arching lines, crafted ornamentation and intellectual rigour are what inform her overview.
Occasionally, yes, you'll find bittersweet shards of longing (the end of the E-flat Nocturne or the B-major from Opus 62) – but they're fruits of the here and now, drawn essentially out of the page. In such cases, seems to be the inference, it is Chopin indulging the nostalgic, not us. That’s provocative.
This is a recital of insights: of cultured pedalling, of playing to climaxes and cadences free of exaggeration, of Mozartean rhythm – pliant yet crisp, never flaccid or dragging. Cooper gives the Ballades with imposing élan. The early G minor's E-flat episodes are eloquently full-throated affairs – weighted, sonorous and aristocratic; and its high-voltage coda, like the more deliberated one of the F-minor, shows a superior grasp of the creative dynamic – along with an unexpected pianistic gloss: the silkier, quieter second scale (in tenths) at the end. Heeding the composer, Cooper dispenses with programmes and fictions, letting the notes pursue their own mystery.
Holistic conception and unfeigned profiling focus the Polonaise-fantaisie and the Fantasy – neither piece is that easy to hold together. Cooper is at-one with Chopin's speech patterns, disinclined to force issues or gild point-making. In the former it's salutary how she coaxes the ascending wind-across-string arpeggios to spin their magic, directness before interpretation ruling the moment. Her view of the Fantasy is Shakespearean – the bardic triplets, Olivier-esque and brooding, the adieu recitative, and the woodland echoes bordering on grand theatre. Contrary to too many modern pianists who tense-up (loosen) the marcia rhythms of the first page, short-change syntax generally, or take the inflate/fragment approach, Cooper elegantly conveys, through weighting and pacing of events, that – epic and columned though this work may be, and despite Chopin's self-confessed sadness during its writing – the poise of a leafy country garden was also a part of its genesis.
Fioriture are to Chopin what cadenzas were to Liszt. Those of the Opus 27/2 and Opus 62/2 Nocturnes are exquisitely imaged here – every blossom a rising, stooping stem of ravishing, trailing, fading perfume silhouetted against the dying, banded clouds of twilight evenings and smoky autumns. One Cooper doesn't have to play at all: of seemingly Nature's own dreaming, a wisp of a whisper – the patter of distant rain? – ventures ghost-like across the close of the Berceuse, lending, however transiently, a shiver factor to proceedings.
Chopin of this calibre is rare: Solomon (1930s/40s), Arrau and Michelangeli (50s/60s), Bishop ([Kovacevich], 1970s) and Demidenko (the Nineties). A bonus track – the Barcarolle Opus 60 omitted from Cooper’s CD – is available online.