Imogen Cooper Celebrates Seventy Years; in Oxford, London, and Bath
They say there are some musicians who are admired, and some who are loved. Imogen Cooper is very much admired, not least by other pianists, but as she marks her seventieth birthday on August 28, there can scarcely be any musician alive who is more truly loved. On her sixtieth birthday ten years ago, The Guardian devoted an editorial to her, calling her a “a rare and understated British talent” (which itself was understated, although her gifts are certainly rare). Maybe hard to define, it’s her combination of self-effacement with dedication; intense study and endless practice of her repertoire with matchless inwardness; and her intimacy with her best-loved composers, maybe Schubert above all.
Cooper is celebrating her birthday later this year with several recitals, in which she’ll be playing the same program—the last three towering Schubert sonatas, three times over. On October 19 at the Oxford Lieder Festival, in the course of a day she will play the three separately: the C minor sonata at 10:45 AM at the historic Holywell Music Room (the oldest concert hall in Europe still in use), the A major at 5:15 PM, and the B flat major at 10 PM, both of those at the St John the Evangelist Church on Iffley Road. Less demanding in terms of bus travel, she will perform the three in an evening at her “birthday concert” at the Wigmore Hall on October 22, and again at the Bath Mozartfest on November 15.
She grew up in London, the daughter of Martin Cooper, for many years the music critic of the Daily Telegraph, started playing the piano at three, and at twelve went to study in Paris, and then to Vienna with Alfred Brendel, who told her, “You’re a slow developer but you’ve got what it takes; just take your time.” She was certainly no wunderkind; she didn’t enter competitions (“the cancer of musical life,” as her esteemed contemporary Sir András Schiff calls them), and she took her time to find her voice. Even as her career got underway, she never joined the circle of musical “celebrities,” and she never had a long-term deal with a big record label.
Those who even now haven’t joined the Imogen Cooper Appreciation Society might almost be forgiven, since her career has been gently paced and sometimes elusive. Little more than ten years ago an American critic could say that Imogen Cooper was “likely not a name that pops to mind for classical music fans when discussing the world’s great concert pianists,” before going on to write that he had been completely bowled over by her. Since then her réclame has grown, with performances in many countries as well as recordings, and the name surely pops to many more minds.
As Cooper’s reputation grew, so did her repertoire, now stretching from Mozart to new works by Thomas Adès and Brett Dean, from concertos to accompaniment, notably with the baritone Wolfgang Holzmair, and of course Schubert, a composer with whom she seems to have an uncanny affinity. Anyone who wants to dip into her magical-musical world might try the three-CD Imogen Cooper & Friends, which includes Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos with Brendel, the Brahms Intermezzi (which she played wonderfully at a recent BBC lunchtime concert), the Schubert Piano Trio in B flat with Raphaël Oleg and Sonia Wieder-Atherton, and Schubert’s “Ständchen” with Holzmair. Those friends and many others will want to join in wishing this beloved artist many happy returns.