Imogen Cooper plays Liszt and Wagner
The lyrical refinement that typifies Imogen Cooper’s finest recordings suits this selection of Liszt original works and transcriptions. She may underplay the Second Valse oubliée’s climax but her pointing up of the quirky broken rhythmic motif and sensitive shading of the bitonal moments compensates. She holds Liszt’s piano version of the Faust Symphony’s central ‘Gretchen’ movement together by shaping the melodic narrative in fluent arcs and never letting the left hand sag for a moment. Because the overall effect is conversational rather than dramatic, the performance winds up sounding far faster than its 19-minute running time implies.
Of the four pieces from the Italian book of Années de pèlerinage, ‘Sposalizio’ and ‘Il penseroso’ stand out for Cooper’s sonorous rhetoric and digging into the big bass-lines, while she really gets into the slightly naive swagger of the ‘Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa’. By contrast, the ‘Sonetto 104’ is a tad held back; the climactic filigree and double notes lack the poetic abandon of pianists as disparate as Horowitz, Bolet and Arrau. Cooper weighs the gnawing dissonances of ‘Nuages gris’ perfectly, although I prefer Paul Lewis’s foreboding textural haze and wider dynamic spectrum (Harmonia Mundi, 10/04).
Cooper’s straightforward reading of Wagner’s original Elegy in A flat leads into the Tristan und Isolde Prelude in the late Zoltán Kocsis’s arrangement. The pianist takes care not to exaggerate the big build-up’s acceleration, yet her notey upward scales lack a sense of sweep; listen to Kocsis’s own recording to hear what’s missing (Philips, 9/82 – nla). A stark and forthright performance of La lugubre gondola bridges the Prelude and the Wagner/Liszt Liebestod. Cooper doesn’t quite match the shimmer and sheen of Bavouzet’s gorgeous MDG traversal but she voices the counterpoint scrupulously. The final selection, Bagatelle sans tonalité, gets off to a crisp and characterful start, only to grow heavier and less scintillating as it unfolds; no match for Brendel’s cutting-edge bite (Decca). On the whole, this release is more persuasive than Cooper’s relatively underplayed Chandos Chopin recital (7/16), if not so magically memorable as her Avie Schubert series (9/09, 1/10, 7/10).