At Friday night's penultimate recital of this year's SJE Arts International Piano Series, Imogen Cooper became “a partner in… sorrow's mysteries". From the opening solemnity and sadness of tone of Book 1 of Jánacek's “On an Overgrown Path" the audience travelled like a blown-away leaf through a gamut of emotions evoked by the rhapsodic structures and asymmetrical melodies of the piece, the tripping lyricism of the playing, through beautiful variations in pace accompanied by the lucidity and fluidity of the sonorous tones of the bass clef.
We were then treated to the complex roiling rhythms and tones of Schumann's Davidbündlertänze, Op. 6 with its exploration of passion, anxiety and longing hung from the skirts of an echoing mazurka. Cooper deftly explored the contradictions and highs and lows endemic to the piece. Her unflamboyant style and delicacy of touch opposed to the arrhythmia and strident tones of the more angst-ridden sections of the piece.
Falla's Homage to Debussy which opened the second half of the recital, continued the evening's underlying exploration of folklore, its music and songs, but transposed to rhythms and melodies of Iberia. Originally written for classical guitar, this interpretation is Cooper's own piano transcription and maintained the underlying fluidity of the Spanish guitar creating a merging crescendo of sound trilling and tripping over into sadness as “when the melancholy fit shall fall, sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud", contrasted by lasting moments of resonance moving to silence.
The Debussy pieces which followed, inspired in part by Falla, also contained echoes of flamenco, adopted the rhythm of the habanera and used the notes of an Arabic scale echoing the African diaspora. Shades of fado contained great, restrained passion and were perfectly executed by the pianist's refined style. Thus was the complexity constructed and the lyrical motif emphasised: through the inherent musical contradictions of the piece, passion versus sorrow.
The music of the final composer of the evening, Albeniz, was also grounded in Iberia, its musical idioms, rhythms and dances, in this case the fandango and jota and the playing again echoed the strumming and plucking of the classical guitar. The piece recalls a cante jondo - “in the very temple of Delight, Veil'd Melancholy has her Sovran shrine" – and Cooper's accomplished execution underlined the musical contradictions and underlying sadness which was tonight's recurrent musical theme.
Throughout the recital, Cooper was a quiet and composed figure at the magnificent Steinway and neither her body language nor her expression was unnecessarily showy. However the tone of her playing and her precise, detailed execution proved to be the perfect medium to explore these pieces' contradictions, complementary rhythms and tones. Whilst discovering the full possibilities of the music and her medium, Cooper's playing returned again and again to the expression of overwhelming, passionate, sadness. On the basis of last night's performance she, “dwelt with Beauty – Beauty that must die", Imogen Cooper's reputation as a great lyricist and romantic pianist is well deserved - surely melancholy is thy name.