Imogen Cooper has forged an international career as a concert pianist. She has performed as soloist with a number of major orchestras (including the New York Philharmonic and the Dresden Staatskapelle), and frequently plays and directs Mozart Concerti with the Northern Sinfonia. Imogen has given recitals at concert halls around the world, and is an active chamber musician. Her CD releases include works by Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Beethoven and Wolf, but Imogen also is also a keen performer of new music.
Imogen has recently been appointed Humanitas Visiting Professor in Classical Music and Music Education. I spoke to her the day after her inaugural recital (a programme of Schubert).
What was it about Schubert’s Lieder that first attracted you to his music?
It was the Lieder sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He was in my growing up years a dominant figure in Lieder: very powerful and beguiling, and he told the story so wonderfully. Schubert’s music is all about telling stories, actually: whether it’s Lieder or solo music, it’s all about telling his story. I would listen in my teenage student years in my hostel just outside Paris, and I had access to the old gramophone – not wind up, I’m not quite that old! – but LP. For some reason, the hostel had lots of recordings of Lieder, and I would go in and immerse myself in it. The solo music did not come so soon. I didn’t really know the big works, but I knew they existed and I could hear such a scope of emotion in the Lieder.
So, what attracted me? Well, partly just the humanity of the man. There was something so direct about his utterance, be it tenderness or love or fear, terror, a feeling of death…He always had this black beast on his shoulder, even from before he was ill. I think it was in his temperament: he was very melancholic, but also a great lover of life and he would swing between the two. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t bipolar, but I think he might have had SAD [Seasonal Affective Disorder]. It was often in the winter that he would plunge down. In the summer he would get out and walk in the countryside. There was something immensely appealing about that, and he just wrote the most incredible tunes! Tunes that just haunt you and you think, “Where did you come from?” There were so many of them.
The connection between the violent and calm has particularly struck me in your Schubert interpretations: it seems almost inevitable that one will emerge from the other.
I think it was part of his psyche that everything is completely intermingled. Schubert had this particular capacity (rather more than Beethoven, who would have used a stepping-stone to get you somewhere) to switch you around from one bar to the next. You can be in the most violent thunderstorm, and suddenly he shows you what’s happening in the field next door where the sun has come out. I’m fascinated by those immediate swings, and I’m also fascinated by how to convey that on the piano, and particularly on the modern piano.
He had a particular pedal on the piano of his time which was called the moderator, which is what I’m sure he had in mind when he marked pianissimo and triple pianissimo. A band of felt went down over all the strings, and you had this ghostly, unearthly sound. I’m always struggling as to know how to get that. I have to say, that piano last night particularly has it, because the instrument has to help you too! Some instruments simply haven’t got it. I’m fascinated finding that sound that happens over there.
Have your experiments on period instruments changed your approach to Schubert’s music?
It’s been quite useful for things like tremolos – like at the beginning of the A minor sonata [D784], a slow trill or a tremolo. If you do that on a period piano, it’s firstly much easier to do and secondly you also have a much clearer idea of what he would have heard, and therefore what you’ve got to try and convey. At the same time you have to keep in mind that you’re sometimes in a large hall, and sometimes you have to go for something slightly different. After all, you’re not playing in the Schwarzenberg Palace in Vienna, or in a domestic surrounding: you’re playing in a big, modern hall, and you yet have to convey the same things. Sometimes you have to cheat a little bit on his markings. But you have to keep in mind that which you can learn from a period piano. The feel of it is very different: it’s much lighter. It’s quite interesting for things like dances: they dance more easily by themselves. You don’t have to coax it out of the instrument: it’s just there, a particular lightness. I’m not a period piano player: I love the range a modern concert grand can bring. I was brought up on it, and I never had a period piano time really. I was interested at one time, but it was all quite academic for me really. The sound that I love getting is the sound from the modern concert grand.
Besides Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, which Schubert interpreters have influenced you the most?
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau amongst singers, but there has been some wonderful singers since. My dear colleague Wolfgang Holzmair, who I’m going to hear in London tonight. That’s a long musical relationship – 20 years or so. I’ve learnt so much through him. He’s one of the rare interpreters of nowadays who really does start from the word, and the music follows the story he’s telling. He’s got very fine diction (it is of course his own language, which helps). Before going on the platform, we spit on each other’s shoulders and say “erzähl die Geschichte” (“tell the story”). I say that to myself before I go on.
Among pianists, Alfred Brendel was obviously a huge influence. It was through him that I got to know and learnt the big solo piano works of the 6 years, which is what I really concentrate on. I was lucky, because when I went to work with him I was just 20 and he must have been rising 40. He (rather belatedly) was just beginning to work on these works himself, so often we’d learn something together. His process of discovery was far faster and far deeper than mine was, but there were not too many set ideas at that stage. He was searching, which helped me to search. He was an enormous influence, especially with regards to sound. I remember the first lesson I had with him was on the A minor Sonata [D784]. I started the slow movement with the F major four-note chord. We stayed on it for twenty minutes! I played it quite confident that I could produce a good sound, but he’d shake his head and say that it wasn’t good enough. He paced around the room listening like a hawk: “too much bass! Too loud! The sounds are not quite together! Not the right atmosphere! A little bit more thumb in the right hand!” It just went on, and I thought I’d never get it. Then I started hearing what he was aiming at, and I also started hearing what I could do. He knew that I could do it, otherwise he wouldn’t have bullied me like that! I just kept going, and kept going. He told me to imagine hearing yourself as a person in the back row: would you be content with what you’ve heard? The answer was no. Suddenly I played one chord, and I thought, “Ooh, maybe!” He turned around and said, “Thank you”! That was a great moment. And then, poor me – I had to play the next chord, and string them both together! That was an hour gone. That was a real learning curve. His Schubert is fantastic.
Otherwise, I adore Radu Lupu. I wouldn’t play anything like him, or very little. The last thing I heard him play was the G major sonata, which was just heavenly. I don’t always see it that way, but what he did was so convincing. It was wonderful. Also, the modern-day performers (such as Paul Lewis). I’m glad to say that there are more of us about than when Alfred was starting to learn the sonatas. They were not so played then. One or two famous ones, but the others were left on one side: quite wrongly, because they’re wonderful.
Is there anything that’s surprised you as you’ve returned to Schubert’s music over the years?
It sounds such a trite thing to say, but I’m always surprised. It’s wonderful coming back each time, because they’re in my fingers. I don’t have to struggle with thinking, “How do I play this?” I have a theory that things cook inside you, whether you’re paying attention or not. Probably because of the other work and the other composers you’re doing. You somehow (subtly, in a way I can’t explain because I don’t really understand it) learn something about the composers you’ve put on the back-burner. You also learn something different from each piano you play on. I could come back to a work and play it on a piano I haven’t played on before, even if it’s imperfect (and precisely because it’s imperfect). Maybe the bass is a bit growly, but you think that it sounds wonderful. I look at the score and think, “Is that justified? Yes, he put that marking there. I’ve never quite been able to quite interpret it. It works on this piano; it’s got to be able to work on other pianos.” Such little tiny details can make all the difference.
Tempi can change, whether it’s to do with heartbeat, or younger or older. Not necessarily, because some of my tempi have got faster. The secret is to keep the long line going while honouring the importance of the small detail therein. That just takes many years of coming back to it. I’m always learning.
The idea of putting the music on the back-burner is particularly apt in Schubert because his music seems to be full of his life experience.
The bizarre thing is that I have under my belt roughly twice the life experience he did. As far as life is concerned (and that is what his music is about), I’ve sort of overstepped him. But then I’m not a genius and he was, so it takes a long time to catch up! And also he had these really dark things sitting on him.
I think he would have known when he was diagnosed – he was already in the second stages of syphilis. If I understand rightly, the second stage is the longest of the three. He would probably have known that he wouldn’t die straight away, and that he had a good span of life ahead of him. Indeed, for the D major sonata (D850), he was really in rather good shape. Obviously he went up and down, but he did have his good moments. I don’t see that there were moments when he could have forgotten it, but he could certainly live some sort of a life. And a pretty rumbustious life! I don’t think he looked after himself very well: he drank too much, he smoked, and he took opium. He was probably a pretty unsavoury person to meet!
I read the other day a lovely story about how one of friends went to pick him up to take him out, and found him looking for some socks. The socks he had in his hands had holes in. He was looking in a draw and saying, “It’s ridiculous! They don’t make socks with holes in them anymore, I can’t find them!” I think that’s a lovely sense of humour, just what I would have imagined of him.
Whether it’s planned from on high or elsewhere or deep inside, it seems if there is to be a short lifespan that everything is packed into it. Those that say, “Think of what he could have done if he’d gone on!” I’m quite happy with what he did already. Yes, it would have been fascinating to see, but there isn’t greater.
His life and his music would have been completely different.
Yes, they would. His music would have been more dispersed. What is most extraordinary about those last three months is how much he packed into them. I mean, finishing the last three sonatas in about three weeks. The String Quintet, the F minor Fantasie, finishing off Winterreise… I’d have to look again, but there’s an unbelievable amount. Hardly time to write it down!
I don’t think it was valedictory, either. I think he got so exhausted composing that it made him ill. He didn’t die of syphilis, but he died of typhoid fever. He went to live with his brother, and his brother’s house was new. The plaster on the walls was still damp (which was not healthy for him), and he was near where all the effluence of Vienna went out. He picked up the most disgusting something and turned his face to the wall. He turned to his brother and said, “Brother, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” He must have been exhausted working that much.
I really love him. I really love him as a person. I feel I’ve got to know him really. It’s a very bizarre feeling.
What you plan to bring to the subsequent events of your Humanitas Visiting Professorship?
When I got the email, I was on holiday in France. I read it, and I thought it had been sent to the wrong person! I called my partner Christoph (who’s a Balliol man, he knows how Oxford works) and said, “Look at this! I think they’ve sent it to the wrong person!” He read it and with all his Balliol wisdom he said, “I think they’ve sent it to the right person!” I wondered why me. I’m almost completely academically untrained. I left school aged eleven and went to live in Paris by myself without my family. I studied at the Paris Conservatoire all the subjects you can name, but all to do with music. I learnt about the Hundred Years’ War from what I had seen from the other side, and I learnt how to become bilingual in French because I had to speak it the whole time. But otherwise, no training at all. However, if you consider the acquisition of knowledge necessary to play an instrument at the top level a discipline: boy, it is! A discipline of the mind: mentally, physically, spiritually, everything. There was of course a huge formation in that way.
I had to think why I had been asked. I thought that it was not to be academic, because that’s the one thing I don’t have in my makeup. It must be something to do with what I can bring to my playing. I found myself asking myself what happens in a great performance. What happens for the perfomer; what happens for the audience; what happens with the audience, between the performer and audience. This was very rich food for thought. I’d been reading (and always do, on and off) Anthony Storr, who was a Jungian psychotherapist in Oxford – a wonderful man. He was passionate about music, and functioned somewhere between music and Jungian psychotherapy (which is an area which fascinates me). There were rich pickings there. The moment I got the email and accepted I started writing, because I knew that this would take me a very long time! I’m still tinkering with it. I was fascinated by that aspect of having to dig deep into myself to put words to something that I myself have not had to put words to, and that not many people choose to do. I probably have colleagues that would rather keep off the subject, who don’t want to name something that they consider better off unnamed.
It opens a can of worms.
Yes, it opens a can of worms. Or, rather, it shuts a door. If you name something, you can shut something off as opposed to leaving it to live just by itself. But I thought that I’d take the risk. The symposium around that is going to be very interesting. It’s still in the making. I’m also fascinated by the difference of performance art which is wordless, and the performance art which has words. It seems to me that the words pin you down much more than the non-word performance art does. I want to get an actor of either sex involved. There are some wonderful possibilities: I’m keeping all fingers crossed. Actors have filming schedules and they don’t know when they will be available. St John’s [College, Oxford] is being very patient!
I hope to open up this area of the source that you tap into within yourself when you make music and convey it, and in what way that source is different if you are without words or if you are with them. That has been a very attractive part of it. I’ve loved the past two days, playing on that magnificent piano for such an attentive audience was wonderful in itself.
I’ve just done a masterclass I’ve really enjoyed, where there were a couple of really good people. I love teaching in that way. I can’t really do one-to-one regularly because I’m travelling too much and I can’t take on that responsibility. A masterclass is like two birds whose wings touch as they pass. They take the information away, throw some away and keep some, and understand some more in five years’ time. That interests me a lot. I’ve loved that bit. I’ve also been spoilt with two fantastic dinners!
I’m astounded and honoured to be asked, and I just hope I can do it justice. If you see the list of people who have taken up Humanitas Visiting Professorships before, it’s just mind-boggling!
Who has particularly influenced your thinking about music?
There is a book on Schubert by Elizabeth Norman McKay who wrote a wonderful book about Schubert. It gets you so much in the picture of what his life was, and she approaches the medical side in a much more detailed way than some.
I don’t read an awful lot of other people about music. Why is this? I’ve only come belatedly to reading more about composer’s lives, and I do find that enriching. Reading about analysis doesn’t really interest me at all. I (rightly or wrongly) go with my own instinct. When I’m not flat out I try and do what is necessary to try and get myself back in touch with that source from where this inner energy comes. I could be listening to world music very easily. There are some things that really spark me off: a Janáček opera, or something like that.
I am very interested in any forms of union psychotherapy: how we survive our lives, and how we benefit from events or don’t benefit them. I do a certain amount of reading about that, and then I go back to the great classics! I’m absolutely hooked on Charlotte Brontë all over again. I also read The Mayor of Casterbridge again the other day and thought, “This dark tale really is extraordinary!” That’s really what fuels and fires me.
I’ve read relatively little of somebody like Charles Rosen. I might in future years. I haven’t read all of Alfred’s books. There’s a need for so much other that it just doesn’t quite get in!