The wonderful and high-profile SJE Arts International Piano Series had another installment of their season on 14th June 2018. Imogen Cooper, an internationally renowned pianist, who was the Humanitas Visiting Professor in Classical Music and Music Education in Oxford in 2012-2013, played a carefully crafted programme.
Known as both a fine interpreter of Classical and Romantic repertoire and a supporter of contemporary music, Cooper decided to concentrate on Beethoven and Haydn, while throwing in an intriguing collection of small pieces by Arnold Schönberg for a contrast. For the first half of the concert, Cooper chose pieces that presented collections or small suites (Beethoven's Bagatelles, Schönberg's Sechs kleine Klavierstücke) to mirror Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, the piece which was the culmination of the evening. The program helped us get accustomed to this collection of musical ideas, and prepared us for exploring Beethoven's Diabelli Variations in the second half. The beautiful interior of SJE served as a fitting backdrop, allowing an excursion into the sublime.
The evening started with Beethoven's Bagatelles Op.119, written in 1822, which allowed Cooper to start the evening playfully and introduce us to her skills of plasticity in music intonation. She always introduced a change in dynamics almost jokily for each bagatelle.
Cooper proceeded with Schönberg's Six Little Piano Pieces (1911), which took us to a new sphere of expressionist aesthetic. One breath of musical phrase from the pianist, and it's gone, diluted by the enormous space of the church. The following Hayden's Sonata in C Major (one of the latest in this genre by the composer, written in 1794-95), came almost unexpectedly. It was the only piece of the evening that was not a suite or a collection, and in a way made the most powerful impression. It is here that Cooper's interpretative skills, mastery of phrasing, and skillful build-up of sound dynamics shone. The beautiful Allegro had a Mozartian sparkle, while the Adagio was full of meditative energy that shone like a rare jewel. The return to playfulness in the Allegro Molto produced a smile from Cooper that was a sign for everyone to break for interval drinks.
The second half of the concert was fully devoted to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, written in 1823. These were a commission by the publisher Anton Diabelli to several composers (including Czerny, Schubert and Hummel) to write a variation on his patriotic waltz. Beethoven came up with 33 of these variations, single-handedly establishing a new genre of music of the 19th century. Cooper paid full tribute to the innovative and exploratory character of this work, which features enough musical material and ideas for several sonata cycles, or even a symphony. The suspense was at maximum during the contrapunctal 32nd Variation that shone with everything Beethoven (and Cooper) could achieve - transformation of sound revealed though the breath-taking beauty of music. In her characteristic manner, Cooper finished the Variations with a humorous, playful flourish. A great master with an enormous palette of skills and a deep insight into the structure of compositions, Imogen Cooper inspired the audience to a standing ovation at the end of the concert.