Three classics and a modern

PCMS presents Imogen Cooper, piano

4 minute read
Cooper's appearance is always a special occasion. (Photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke.)
Cooper's appearance is always a special occasion. (Photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke.)

It is always a special occasion to hear the extraordinary British pianist Imogen Cooper, who brought a rich and demanding program to the Perelman Theater as part of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s fall series. Three of the works she performed were mature sonatas by Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert, each challenging, and one of the earliest works of contemporary British composer Thomas Adès.​

The program opened with Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI: 50, one of the three sonatas Haydn wrote in connection with his second and final trip to London in 1795. He had two specific inspirations: he met brilliant pianist Therese Jansen there and encountered the new English piano, with its larger keyboard and greater flexibility.

Haydn was so taken with the new piano he had it shipped to Vienna with him, no easy or inexpensive task in those days. As it turned out, he composed no more music for it; the three London sonatas were his last.

A classic recomposed

The C major sonata begins with an extended allegro based largely on the tripping theme sounded in its opening notes, typically Haydnesque in the twists and turns that give ample room for development. Its dominant character is clarity and wit, as generally with Haydn, but also the pleasure of a master fully in control of his style and always willing to press further.

Chronologically, this score is “late” Haydn, but his work, in all but his final choral masterpieces, remains youthful. Cooper brought a jouissance of her own to the piece while maintaining firm control of its often improvised feel. Her touch in the delicate notes that bring it to its close brought not only applause but murmurs of delight.

Thomas Adès, still in his 40s, has been a presence on the English musical scene for more than 25 years. His “Darknesse Visible,” composed at age 21, is a recomposition (or deconstruction) of a 1610 lute song by John Dowland, “In Darknesse Let Me Dwell.” Many modern British composers, notably Benjamin Britten, have visited the great Elizabethan and 17th-century national tradition for inspiration.

Dowland’s song, which ends with the despairing lines, “O let me living die / till death doe come,” is as dark as any of the period, and a surprising debut for an eclectic and often playful composer. Adès adds no notes of his own to Dowland’s but arranges them in pounding chords and persistent trilling that, while retaining the spirit of the original, recast it in a modern idiom. Cooper, as at home in percussive sonorities as in Haydn’s quintessential lightness of touch, projected the music in all its grimly obsessive force.

One miss among hits

Here, however, Cooper made her one misjudgment of the evening, segueing without pause from Adès into Beethoven’s A-flat sonata, Op. 110. For a few bars, I thought Adès had decided to end his piece by using Dowland’s original music as a counterpoint, but the familiar Beethoven soon asserted itself. Moving from one work to another without pause (or applause) has for some reason crept into concert halls of late. It disserves the music on both ends and was a particular surprise coming from a performer of Cooper’s distinction and integrity.

Beethoven’s Moderato cantabile, with the profound simplicity and restraint of its opening, was thrown off stride by not being given its own room. But, the damage done, Cooper did proper honors for the remainder, especially the finale’s astonishing fugue. Beethoven always cited Handel as his great model, but surely Bach haunts the pages of this score, as well as the Op. 111 sonata that followed it.

The recital concluded with Franz Schubert’s Sonata in C Minor, D. 958, completed only two months before his death in November 1828 and the first of the great trilogy of sonatas D. 958-60. In a letter to his publisher, Schubert said he wanted the sonatas to be treated as a unit. But they were not performed as such until the 20th century and were still so obscure that, on the centennial of Schubert’s death, even Sergei Rachmaninoff confessed he had no knowledge of them.

Schubert’s misfortune was to dwell in Beethoven’s shadow, and it is still easy to misapprehend the originality of his pianistic genius, with its dense chromaticism, subtle modulations, and abrupt moments of drama. Cooper gave the work a fine account, particularly in its opening and closing allegro movements.

Beethoven drives his music to its end like no other composer; in Schubert, one simply wishes the end would never come.

What, When, Where

Imogen Cooper, piano. Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. Piano Sonata in C Major, Hob. XIVI: 50, by Franz Haydn; "Darknesse Visible," by Thomas Adès; Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-Flat Major, Op. 110, by Ludwig Van Beethoven; Piano Sonata in C Minor, D. 958, by Franz Schubert. November 8, 2018, at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 569-8080 or

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