English profiles

16 November 2011

I was keen on doing an interview with Imogen Cooper for my site, since I have known her for a long time. I heard her for the first time in 1989 in Utrecht and remember I went around to see (and thank) her. I was struck, not only by her kindness, but especially by her question whether I would come back to listen to her recital during the next season. I did and she remembered me. The same happened a few weeks later in Amsterdam and we became friends. I heard many of her concerts in the Netherlands. It was not easy to find a moment for an interview until she suggested to do a phone interview, which worked out fine. I was impressed by her eloquent answers and her honesty, those of an artist who has been around long enough to know what she wants..

Willem Boone (WB): How was your trip to Japan?

Imogen Cooper (IC): Wonderful! It was moving to go there after the catastrophies.. I felt lucky to get on a plane and leave after ten days, but the people in Tokyo have no choice... The Japanese are so resilient, patient and hopeful, it moved me. I enjoyed the experience more than before and I have travelled to Japan since 1986. A lot of things have changed, e.g the position of women travelling alone. I also noticed that they are more western in their understanding now. It was quite a hectic tour with several recitals, but I loved being in a bubble of work.

WB: They say that Japanese audiences are very cultivated and attentive, what was your experience?

IC: Good question.. the character of the audiences was different in several cities, especially between Osaka and Tokyo. In the former city the audience was into being “wowed”, whereas in the latter they were happy to be drawn into the music of Schubert and I sensed these differences! The earthquake in Tokyo had an enormous impact, people still don’t take the risk of going out in the evening..

WB: You studied in France and you once said in an interview that going to France was “the obvious choice”, however, I could imagine that you would have got along really well with someone like Sir Clifford Curzon, who excelled in much of the same repertoire as you?

IC: I did work with him, but that was when I was older. Curzon would never have taken on an 11-year-old student. That was the moment when I decided I wanted to become a pianist and for that I needed more fundamental training. In the 60s, there were no schools like the Menuhin School that specialized in young people. Conservatoires and schools in the United Kingdom were for people from 17 year and up. For young children like me, there were only two choices: Moscow and Paris. Paris was far away, but Moscow was definitely too far away.

WB: In Paris you studied with Yvonne Lefébure?

IC: I studied with tons of people! The reason I wanted to go to Paris was that I wanted to work with Jacques Février, but he taught exclusively chamber music. I only found out about this after I arrived in Paris, so I had to find another teacher. I studied with Lucette Descaves, but I am not sure what I learnt from her. I was still seeing Jacques Février at that time and he and Descaves would write each other cynical notes and not very complimentary remarks about each other on my scores. I remember that Février wrote on a score of Ravel “Ravel says... “ in a spirit of one-upmanship. After three years, I went to see Yvonne Lefébure and her assistant Germaine Mounier, who was wonderful.

WB: Was Lefébure famous at the time? I had the impression she was not really well known outside France?

IC: Oh yes, she was! There is a recording of her playing the Mozart D-minor Concerto with Furtwängler, which means that she was showing her stars everywhere. I also heard her once at the London Proms.

WB: Did she differ a lot from the school of Marguérite Long?

IC: I am not sure whether I can tell you that, but she was always bitchy about Long, so I guess she did differ indeed! She studied with Cortot, who had been her main influence. There is a video where she plays the posthumous variations of Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques. There you can hear very clearly how she was influenced by Cortot. There was something quintessentially French about her teaching. And she could be fairly devastating.

WB: In what way?

IC: Let me think, what did she tell me? That I was “molle” (soft) and like a “robinet d’eau tiède”(tap of running tepid water). I was probably more introverted then, but you shouldn’t say that to a 15-year old! She was not psychologically clever in her teaching. She preferred teaching boys anyway...

WB: And then you went to study with Brendel?

IC: Before that, I came back to London at 18. I was really more French at the time and rarely saw my parents while I was in Paris. After that, I had very different teachers, among others Peter Wallfish, a German pianist who helped me to understand the music of Brahms better. I also worked with Sir Clifford Curzon, but we fell out. I did nothing to offend him, but he was a very touchy man. As a performer, he was nervous and had his on and off days. My father used to work as a music critic and once we heard Curzon on an off day. My father wrote an honest review and I received a letter from Curzon saying “Your father obviously thinks I have nothing to teach you”. I guess he didn’t take it very well in the beginning when he heard that I could study with Brendel, but later he was pleased and said: “Go and have a wonderful time!” I also played five or six times for Rubinstein, which was as much a human experience as it was a musical one.

WB: How distinctive was the stamp Brendel left on you?

IC: I definitely feel a clear line from Edwin Fischer down through Brendel, more than with anyone else. The timing of everything was right. He was 40 when I went to work with him, but not yet a household name. He was learning Schubert sonatas and wanted me to learn them at the same time. He did travel, but he was also often in Vienna during these years 1969 and 1970. I saw him twice a week during a period of seven or eight weeks. The lessons took long, sometimes an entire afternoon. I also played second piano for him when he was working on Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto and other concerti. And we listened to a lot of recordings by different artists like Cortot, Lotte Lehmann, the Busch Quartet...  He was an extremely strong influence; he was articulate, eloquent, he knew why he did things and wanted me to do them the same way. That is valid, but you shouldn’t stay too long with such a person. I was honoured when he played me new works and wanted me to write down anything I didn’t like, so I was sitting with the  score and had to be “on my mettle” , because not anyone can criticize Brendel! Later, we recorded Mozart’s concerto’s for two pianos (K 365 and Mozart’s arrangement of the Concerto for 3 pianos K 242) with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

WB: I have a lot of questions about Schubert. You have done a lot of things, but one of the composers I very closely associate you with is Schubert. He must be very close to your heart, is he your favourite composer?

IC: (sigh) I don’t think I can answer that question, but I will answer obliquely: he has a unique place in my heart. On the other hand, I am working on a lot of Schumann now and I have such a passion for him.

WB: The next question is corny..

IC: Try me!

WB: What do you like most about Schubert?

IC: How long have you got? (laughs) First of all, his humanity. He was such a human being.. the way he manages to convey so much emotion in music through the most glorious melodies that range from the imaginitively dark to the devastatingly simple. The way he switches between the dark and the light in his psyche. I have a theory that people get illnesses that suit them. Schubert’s illness alienated him from what he most wanted: love of a partner, therefore he had to dig deeper in his reserves of emotions. Would he have written so many masterworks if he had been married with five children? He wasn’t without love, as he had close friends, but he suffered from a horrible disease, like Aids now. He was only in his 20’s when he got ill and didn’t know he was going to die, he could have expected to live another six or seven years.. At the end of his life, he was weak as a result of the amount of work he did..

WB: Your late colleague Claudio Arrau once called Schubert “the ultimate challenge”, what do you think of his assessment?

IC: I wonder why he said that? I wouldn’t associate him with Schubert and don’t think he ever recorded any of his music?

WB: Oh yes, he did, at the end of his life he recorded the last three sonatas among other things!

IC: I’d love to hear what he did in the C-minor Sonata (D 958, WB)!

WB: I can send you a copy of his recording!

IC: Some of his works are enormously long, for instance the A-major Sonata (D 959) or the String Quintet, it is a challenge for a pianist or a string player to hold the span. If Arrau meant that, I agree and I think he is also right from a pianistic point of view. You need a huge palette of colours, physical means, imagination and most of all you have to tell a story. When I perform with Wolfgang Holzmaier, he always says to me “Erzähle die Geschichte!” before we walk out on stage!

WB: You have played many of the big Schubert song cycles and a lot of other songs, how important is it for a pianist to have performed them if he wants to play his piano music?

IC: It certainly helps, because the songs are a major part of Schubert’s make- up.

WB: Do you study the texts of Schubert’s songs as well when you have to accompany a singer?

IC: Of course, especially when you work with someone like Holzmaier. I am very careful to understand what I play, a pianist has to provide the light and darkness in the piano parts.

WB: What can you learn from a singer?

IC: How to tell a story and how to make long lines if he or she has impressive breath control. Singing is the most natural way to shape a melody

WB: Can a singer also learn from a pianist?

IC: You would have to ask the singer! It never occurred to me, but probably I wouldn’t be the worst guide for Schubert, I have been on this journey for so long...

WB:I have always wanted to ask a question about the B-flat major Sonata (D 960), the last one Schubert wrote. Although it was written in a major key, I have always had the feeling that it is a tragic piece. I don’t know whether this is odd or not?

IC: Compared to the other two late Sonatas (D 958 and 959), it is not in essence a dramatic composition. It’s lyrical and there is nothing of the drama you find in the second movement of D 959. It is certainly a big piece, though! By the way, I don’t play the repeat in the first movement of D 960, I think these eight bars don’t belong to the piece. Had Schubert lived two years longer, he might in my view have moved from the shadow of Beethoven and he would have reviewed the structure of this sonata. For me these eight bars don’t make sense.

WB: How would you describe the overall atmosphere of the whole sonata?

IC: Edwin Fisher said about Mozart’s last concerto K 595 (which is written in the same key, B-flat major, WB) “It is an endless outbreath”, that’s what it is. The atmosphere is slightly autumnal, but the scherzo is spring-like. Other than that, I can’t tell you the general feeling.

WB: You have conducted Mozart concertos from the keyboard, why would you do that? Isn’t it making the task very difficult since it is not easy to play his concertos anyway?

IC: I am about to do it again (laughs), but I don’t move my arms at all, not like Ashkenazy or Uchida. Pianists who conducted his concertos from the keyboard made a lot of gestures. If you play with a top chamber orchestra, it works. I don’t want to conduct, I’d rather go to the musicians and say: “How do we do this?”. I am planning to play concertos with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and love the experience.

WB:I like your repertoire and heard you in a lot of different styles, I remember the first book of Iberia or music by Janacek, Liszt and Smetana. Are you a curious person?

IC: No, I am not and this probably doesn’t do me credit. I don’t do the obvious things such as whole Beethoven cycles. Well, I do the concertos, but not all of his sonatas, it doesn’t interest me. If I fall in love with a work and want to convey something that I haven’t heard before, I go for it, but I don’t go on the internet to search for rare scores, absolutely not! I don’t feel the need either to play music by Stockhausen.. It is healing to play music on a deeply spiritual level. We all need healing, since we live in a very frightening world.

WB: Do you have challenges ahead?

IC: Certainly, but I don’t know what they are! I have to fall in love with a work and I need to block time in my agenda to learn it, it’s difficult..

WB: Didn’t you want to tackle Brahms’s First Piano Concerto or was I thinking of another pianist?

IC: No, I haven’t got the build for it. I have left it, but I can hear it,  it will survive the fact that Imogen Cooper hasn’t played it. I would like to take up his Third Sonata, which I love and played many years ago. And maybe for myself, I would like to play Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit again, that I studied in Paris...

WB: What’s the biggest sacrifice in this job?

IC: What other people would call “a normal life”: to go for a long walk, to mix with the world more.. I need to be alone after ten years alone, I am happier alone than not, but I missed out on quite a few things! Sometimes I long for a more normal life, since mine is completely dysfunctional.

WB: Is it worth all this?

IC: Sure! Whether I can say that in twenty years when I probably can’t play any more, I don’t know. I don’t know any other life,  music has been at the center of my life and humanity. But yes, I am one of the blessed 5% whose sense of life and work is intermingled. I sometimes fight to the instrument, but ultimately I don’t know any other life...

WB: What’s the nicest thing anybody has ever told you with regards to your piano playing?

IC: I am not sure whether I can answer your question, therefore I will answer in a more global way. I don’t often read reviews,  but I am really happy when people start hearing what I am doing at greater depths. I am moved when people in the audience describe what music has done to them in terms that I would use myself. That gives me more pleasure than anything, more than people telling me “I played very well”.When everything is flowing, it is circular and you come out better!