An Interview with Imogen Cooper
Clara Schumann was so fond of Brahms’ string sextet that he made her a piano arrangement. Imogen Cooper had to battle her own sense of trepidation before she decided it would be permissible to tackle the piano transcription.
“Because I adore the string sextet, I was in two minds about taking it up,” she explains. “But the piece is so beautiful that it the end I couldn’t resist.”
And there the trepidation ended. Cooper compared Brahms’ piano reduction with his sextet and made a few improvements of her own.
“Strangely, Brahms simplified one or two things; he took out some absolutely salient harmonies or chord spacings. I can’t believe it was to protect Clara in any way, because she was a fabulous pianist. Maybe he just did it in a hurry. Anyway, I put them back; I hope he doesn’t mind. I think my version sounds better, if I may say so.”
Still, Cooper retained enough anxiety about her right to perform the piece that she was flooded with relief when a member of the Belcea Quartet voiced his approval.
“He said he didn’t miss the strings at all. I thought that was the greatest possible compliment!”
Schubert’s final piano sonata presents a different set of challenges.
“The piece stands out for its sheer lyricism,” says Cooper. “What’s interesting is that he wrote it at exactly the same time as his C minor sonata, which is so full of terror. But I don’t think the music of that time was valedictory at all. I don’t think he could have known that he was going to die.”
Though the composer had syphilis, says Cooper, it was still in its second stage; it was typhoid fever which did for him. His brother Ferdinand, in a misguided attempt to help him, offered him a place in his unfinished Vienna house, which was damp and close to canal which carried the city’s effluent.
“There is a touching story that when his brother visited him, he said, ‘Brother, what is wrong with me?’ He really didn’t know. And ten days later, he was dead.”
Not that death in Vienna, then or ever, seems quite as bad as death in most places.
“Death was not seen in the same unspeakable way as we see it now,” Cooper agrees. “I guess the whole idea of it was much more integrated into the everyday than it is now. And in Vienna, it was almost like a friend who comes and takes your hand. Still, it can’t have been the nicest way to die. Poor old Schubert.”
Also on Cooper’s Australian tour programme is Schumann’s “Davidsbünder”, a set of 18 pieces in which his two alter egos, Florestan and Eusebius (respectively the extrovert and the introvert) are represented in turn. The two characters, whom Schumann also used in correspondence to explain his changing moods, are sometimes cited as evidence that the composer suffered from bipolar disorder, or manic depression.
“Schumann? Bipolar?” Cooper responds. “I wouldn’t like to put my hand in the fire on that one. He was definitely syphilitic, and he did get to the tertiary stages of the disease, which would have contributed to his madness at the end. But like Schubert, he had the seeds not only of darkness but also of tremendous swings. I think he was cyclothymic – he generally felt better in summer than he did in winter.
“I think a lot of it was tied up, also, with his composition. He would be completely miles away when he was composing. And then he would be full of righteous indignation, thinking that the world was against him and that he would never be a success; but you know, most artists have a bit of that, frankly.”
Surprisingly, this will be Cooper’s first tour for Musica Viva, though she is a familiar figure on Australian stages because of the many performances with and for Australian orchestras. Asked just how often she has been Down Under, Cooper responds with perplexity.
“I’m a woman. I don’t think that way. Men think this way. It’s a perfectly fair question, but I don’t know the answer.”
Chickens, apparently, cannot count further than one; their mathematical capacities allow them to perceive either one or more than one.
“Oh no, how nice! Right, I’m a chicken. Yes, it’s a little bit like that.”
The lifestyle of a touring pianist, she says, is brutal in the extreme; her current coping tactic is to retire to a stone garden in the French countryside for several working weeks at a stretch.
“It’s a completely dysfunctional life. It’s monstrous. It eats up all your time unless you find a way to get around it.
“My workload has actually increased over the past 13 or 14 years. And you reach an age where you have to find a strategy.” An Oxford professorship and additional writing obligations have further added to her commitments.
“You’ve got to live life. I mean, playing music is about life. It’s about expressing all the emotions that one can possibly live. How can you do that if you’re living in a tunnel, running for a plane the moment you’re off the platform? That’s not a life. You need space and reflection and dream time. You need to be able to stop and be still, to read and really listen. Sometimes the best way to hear a score is just to sit in your garden or on a beach somewhere.”
For Cooper, a nine-concert tour of Australia is both a novelty and a challenge.
“I’m very excited about it, I must say. The older I get the more I want to try new experiences, things that I haven’t done before. In this profession you have to form your own parameters, but you also have to be prepared to change them sometimes.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp