Pianist portrays nuances of Schubert

Imogen Cooper eschews usual approach.
Imogen Cooper eschews usual approach. (BENJAMIN EALOVEGA)
Posted: February 22, 2013

With his cunning wisps of dance tunes and church harmonies, Schubert gives even the mildly astute performer an easy way into his music.

But Imogen Cooper doesn't have the kind of mind that lends itself to the easy way in, or out. The London pianist, in Wednesday night's all-Schubert recital at the Perelman Theater, introduced an air of struggle and vulnerability that went far beyond the usual highlighting of abrupt mood swings, major-minor ambiguity, and the composer's signature dialogue between the keyboard's soprano and baritone voices.

Her first 21 bars of the A Minor Sonata: A whispered horror, maybe only a rumor of what we are up against. An echo confirms and deepens our fears. New material introduces the antagonist and conflict. Our hero is nearly beat, but manages to turn back menace.

A decent account of the drama, of course, could be conveyed by any pianist presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society this season. But it's doubtful any could have rendered Schubert's demons with the introspection Cooper brought to those quiet corners where the worst of them lurk. A vivid orchestration calls out to this work, his D. 784 (never before played on a PCMS program). Cooper made it lieder.

No encores. But the pianist started with all of the Four Impromptus, D. 899 (which are more often done individually as encore material). She didn't use rubato often, but when she did, she deployed it severely, and lovingly. And, yet, it all went according to a strategy. She let harmonic change dictate when she would slow down and by how much, as if to say: listen, let's appreciate what's going on here.

A more brilliant tone greatly benefited the Sixteen Deutsche Tänze, D. 894, and Cooper's handling of the Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894, was a startlingly beautiful rejoinder to the piano jocks who use it to say more about themselves than about the music. Two bits of evidence caught the artist heeding Schubert's notations while exercising the rarest imagination: the fluid consequences of letting emotions dictate wide tempo swings in the first movement, and, in the trio of the third movement, the idea that serenity in its highest form has the ability to leave the listener changed in a small but real way.

Contact Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611.

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