Having in recent years ventured down roads taking her from Liszt and Wagner to Chopin, Imogen Cooper here turns her attention to Beethoven, not a composer whose solo output she's recorded much (just the Opus 10/3 Sonata on an early Nimbus quadraphonic LP released in 1977). She gives a thoughtful reading of the Opus 119 Bagatelles, a collection of trifles and aphorisms with surprises dating from the First Symphony onwards, published for “ready money” in 1823. She finds beauty and delicacy, and in one number – the circling music-box ‘Allemande’ – decided enchantment, favouring a held-back tempo and innocence of characterisation closer to Michelangeli or Sokolov than Brendel or Schnabel. Pletnev's fantasy and footing, inspirational for some, interventionist for others, Afanassiev's personalisation likewise, is not her style. Repeatedly, it's almost as though she wants to remind us of what her father, the critic Martin Cooper, wrote in his Beethoven bicentenary study: “Beethoven's pot-boilers are often quite as interesting as other composers' most ambitious and carefully considered works. Hardly one is entirely without interest”. Indeed. Populist Viennese fashion couldn't be further from their curious, lonely world. In Cooper's hands 'Für Elise', of unclear origin and recipient, muses gently, the simplicity and cadence of its repetitive phrases lent a muted maturity denied to the clatter of schoolroom fingers.
The few seconds of Opus 119/10, Schoenbergian brevity, the fifty-nine minute span of the Diabelli Variations, all things to all men. Beethoven's shortest and longest piano utterances. In his publicity puff, Diabelli of the C-major “cobbler's patch” recognised “the most original structures and ideas, the boldest musical idioms and harmonies are here exhausted; every pianoforte effect based on a solid technique is employed and his work is the more interesting from the fact that it is elicited from a theme which no one would otherwise have supposed capable of a working-out of that character in which our exalted Master [the greatest living representative of true art] stands alone among his contemporaries ..." From robust waltz to ethereal minuet, Cooper traces a narrative journey, each variation, she asserts, telling their own story. A drama, an epic, of humour, (violently) contrasted mood states, changing tempos, variegated registers and textures, limitless breadth of imagination, is the message she wants to get across, without any attempt to assert a broader sub-design. “The idea of play is paramount.”
That her pianism may not always be equal to the notes shouldn't detract from her resolve. To conquer is a stressful business, as much for player as listener. Effort no less than effortlessness makes the experience. Occasionally I found myself wondering if she was being too careful and polite, losing energy, opting for safety before bravura in the more taxing etude sequences. But then, at the turn of a page, dynamics and perspectives scattered in a breath, new vistas to behold, she takes us to ageless grottos deep within, flickering unseen light casting a sepulchral glow: there's nothing in the literature to compare with Variations XIV or XX and she searches far, stopping time and man. What sort of mind could have produced such stanzas, defying all centuries? Handel triggered the brusque in Beethoven, Bach encouraged fantastical dreams and luxuriance of decoration. Reflectively, the penultimate E-flat double-fugue is rough-hewn and densely voiced, the preceding C-minor trilogy (XXIX-XXXI) proliferate and liberated, a processional of entwined, wondrous filigree. One is convinced.
Not immediately spectacular, these are performances that bloom with quietly gracious culture, the intellect behind them searching and deliberated, the timbered, clay-brick Snape acoustic engineered to a nicety (Jonathan Cooper). The privacy of late Beethoven.