This wonderful concert consisted of two awe-inspiring late Beethoven works: the gentle and ethereal A flat sonata (opus 110), and the sprawling constellation of the 33 Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli (the ‘Diabelli Variations’). These pieces, with their rich autumnal qualities and their position in the autumn of Beethoven’s life, greatly suited our own experience of shortening days. To many listeners (including myself!) this programme represented a kind of musical heaven, and Imogen Cooper gave a marvellous account of both pieces, playing with great deftness, clarity and depth. Her interpretations were strikingly honest, refusing to hide behind flashiness or individualistic quirks, and it was particularly good to hear the inner voices brought forward so richly, especially in the contrapuntal movements.
The two pieces have peculiar challenges, both for the player and the audience, and their pairing – with an interval between them – was inspired. What was also quite thrilling was Imogen Cooper’s profound approach to the pacing in each, and her ability to sustain the atmosphere throughout. The warm A flat sonata moves slowly and deliberately through great worlds of emotion, from gentle contemplation (both wistful and content) through blunt and jolly fun, to darkest despair and then at last a radiant, brilliant apotheosis. Imogen Cooper presented the subtle harmonies with their mercurial shifts from major to minor – especially in the fugal passages near the end – with magisterial assurance and gravitas, and never was the audience released from the tremendous Beethovenian landscape that she presented to us, in all its rich and multifarious hues.
The Diabelli Variations, in the second half, pose an opposite challenge: most are very short – sometimes even abrupt – and while they hint at vastness, they shift in colour and shape very frequently. To present and sustain a coherent interpretation of this strange collection of gems is a great achievement indeed, and the audience was left spell-bound by Imogen Cooper’s performance. It was particularly fascinating to note how she timed the pauses between variations – sometimes treating a group of them as though they made a tight movement, sometimes hurrying straight from one to another, sometimes allowing a short stop. The moods contrasted vigorously, and yet there was an engaging continuity, so that we were invited to feel some familiarity with each variation (because of its relationship to the theme and the preceding section). The treatment of each reflected their particular qualities – indeed anything from ironic wit to deepest contemplative joy, from ‘clumsy’ play-acting to dazzling virtuoso chases. The playing was always emotional, but never sentimental. Towards the end the intensity became almost overwhelming: when the fierce and forceful fugue surrendered to the final minuet and its coda, Imogen Cooper brought us to new and magical heights, and the final demi-semi quaver passages, dancing above the remains of the Diabelli theme in a manner both childlike and profoundly spiritual, formed an utterly beautiful climax to a most memorable concert.
Head of History