Imogen Cooper (b. 1949) is one of the best pianists currently before the public. Although she is now in her sixties, I'd never even heard of her until just a few years ago when she began recording a series of admirable Lieder discs as accompanist for baritone Wolfgang Holzmair. Her abilities as a sensitive equal partner in those recordings was notable. Then she began recording a series of Schubert sonatas and they, too, were remarkable. Now comes, on the admirable Chandos label, the first in a new series: Cooper playing all of Schumann's solo piano works. The two major works here -- Fantasiestücke, Op. 12, and Kreisleriana, Op. 16 -- are from that group of works in which Schumann's poetic alter egos -- the sensitive, feminine Eusebius and the rash, masculine Florestan -- are easily discernible. Each of the works was inspired, at least partly, by Schumann's inner turmoil in regard to a real or potential love object. The Fantasiestücke were inspired by a piano student from England, Robena Laidlaw, for whom Schumann had feelings. (Although, later, after she had returned to England, there is some indication that Schumann also was thinking about the absent [in Vienna] and forbidden long-time inamorata, Clara Wieck, the still-young daughter of Schumann's former teacher who eventually became his wife. And Kreisleriana was in fact written for Clara. He wanted to have a dedication to her on the published score, but her father forbade it and thus it was dedicated to 'Herr F. Chopin'.
There have, of course, been many recordings of these works and many are outstanding. What, if anything, could Cooper possibly bring to her performances that could shed any new light on them? Well, I think some of the hallmarks of Cooper's style are her ability to convey, without shouting, her deep feeling as well as her maturity and wisdom. Generally, these pieces are played from, so to speak, the viewpoint of an adolescent or young adult. Cooper plays them with an almost autumnal quality, a remembrance of things past, and this is, I feel, a valid approach. This is not to say that her playing is muted or low energy. Rather, there are feelings transmuted by the inevitable changes of passing time.
The other work on the CD is by Brahms, his solo piano arrangement of the slow movement, a theme and variations, from his First String Sextet, Op. 18. What, you might ask, is it doing on this Schumann disc? Well, Brahms, in 1860, made the arrangement for Clara Schumann née Wieck, now a widow, who was a beloved touring piano virtuoso. Cooper plays it deep in the keys with correspondingly rich tone, absolutely appropriately for this rich music. This is aided, as all these performances are, by the Hamburg Steinway she plays, an instrument located at the Aldeburgh concert hall, the Maltings. There are those who complain about the ambience of Chandos's recorded sound. I've never had a problem with it and in fact have been very pleased with the sound on most Chandos recordings. That remains true here.
This is a treasurable disc and it makes me eager to hear more Schumann by Imogen Cooper as it comes along.