Taking the plunge

As chief Artist in Residence at this year's Bath Festival, Imogen Cooper is having to think of more than just herself. The thought she's had is Schubert.

"I make a good cappuccino," wrote Imogen Cooper in her fax to me as we fixed up this interview. Indeed she does, as I discovered when I arrived at the north London home she shares with her photographer husband, John Batten, and was at once treated to a not-so-small masterpiece of a cappuccino. (There is, I gathered, a passionate rivalry between herself and a near neighbour called Simon Rattle about who makes the best.) Meanwhile we talked about life, art, and the then imminent General Election. "Do you need to take along your registration card to be able to vote?" she wondered. No, I said, I don't think you do. "That's good, because I can't find mine. I think the dog ate it."

Besides her expertise in making Italian-style coffee, Imogen Cooper plays the piano rather well too. For the past 25 years or so she has sustained a world career as a pianist whose expertise in Mozart, Schubert and Schumann is widely admired, while seeming to avoid the gaudier trappings that usually accompany this kind of status. One of the beneficial side-effects, perhaps, of life without a major record contract?

"There was a time, a few years ago, when I was upset about that," she says. "But I can honestly say I'm not now. I've recorded Schubert's late sonatas for a small label [Ottavo Recordings], and I was able to get the conditions I felt I needed. Four days for each sonata." And one of the bigger multinational labels might not have been so amenable? "Possibly not. I'm a slow burner and a slow developer. I always have been.

"When you step out on to the concert platform, I think you've an obligation to bring a certain uniqueness to your performance. Your audience has a right to expect that. And, for me, it takes a lot of thought and a lot of work to reach that point. I've found that 50 concerts a year is the largest number that's right for me. It's strange, but if the total goes up to 53 or 54, I really start feeling it."

Pianists get typecast like everyone else, and while this one is happy to be associated with Mozart and Schubert, her knowledge of the repertory, especially in the 20th century, is far wider than many of her admirers will probably suspect. Asked to lead the "Artists in Residence" series of concerts at this year's Bath Festival, she found herself planning programmes involving other musicians besides herself.

"It's the first time I've done this, and it's been fascinating. The festival likes to give you a broad theme to work with. This year it's 'Death and Rebirth', which is almost too broad. You could probably make most things fit that if you tried! Last year my good friend Roger Vignoles had 'Visitors and Migrants', so he found lots of Lieder about gypsies. I've had to explore a bit wider than that."

She herself plays (on 25 May) a solo recital of Schubert's late piano sonatas, neatly incorporating the twin themes of the composer's poignantly early death at the age of 31 and the bicentenary year of his birth. Meanwhile, for some of the other concerts, she has come up with some choice rarities. The Endellion Quartet's concert on 26 May features Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht (Transfigured Night), Mozart's D major String Quintet (K593) and, between them, Hindemith's The Death of Death, a song-cycle scored for the bizarre, one-off combination of soprano, two violas, and two cellos. "It starts very dark, and gets even darker," says Cooper, pointing out that Mozart in D major will then provide a radiant antidote.

Her fellow-artists throughout the series include the French pianist Anne Queffelec, a talented prizewinner at the 1969 Leeds Piano Competition and much admired on this side of the Channel ever since. "She's my closest friend," says Cooper. "The odd thing is that, although we were both at the Paris Conservatoire for years, and were always seeing each other's names on noticeboards, we never met while we were there.

"There were times when I was lonely in Paris. Every day I had this long train journey to and from my hostel, and one of the stations on the way was in fact just next to the Queffelec family house. We only found this out years later, when we were both students in Vienna. Anne said, 'If only I'd known. You could have come to see us at weekends, and your life would have been different.'"

Cooper studied at the Paris Conservatoire throughout her teens before heading for Vienna to work with Alfred Brendel. "I don't regret my time in Paris," she says. "It was what I wanted to do. And in a system like that, you're trained to be professional. It's only afterwards that you realise you've missed out on so much of a normal upbringing. Looking back, I'm not so sure I'd recommend it to a child now."

Schubert's bicentenary year has brought with it a predictable avalanche of published research on the composer's short life, some areas of it more convincing than others. Cooper, while reading it with interest, also has her own thoughts.

"I think Schubert was manic-depressive. There are all the signs of it. Especially the way he'd compose virtually nothing for several months, and then suddenly be amazingly productive for several more. You can hear it in the music, too - the way a musical phrase will switch from major to minor, and back again, as if it's unsure which it really is. I'm sure there's a connection there.

"He probably knew that he was likely to die young. Everybody had every kind of illness in those day, that was quite normal, but syphilis was something else. The only known treatment at that time was with mercury, and that was almost as dangerous. It could well have been that which helped to cause his death."

She also feels that, as far as a true appreciation of Schubert's music goes, his bicentenary hasn't come a moment too soon. Indeed, she has her doubts about how much things have changed in the past 70-odd years since Rachmaninov, no less - one of the greatest pianists of all time - was heard to ask whether Schubert had written any piano sonatas at all.

"When you're talking to some of the audience after a concert, it can be quite depressing to find that so many people still think of Schubert as 'little Schubert'. A song like Heidenroslein - that's all right. But there's still this reluctance to acknowledge the magnitude of his major works. The late D major Sonata, for instance - people seem to like the last movement best, because it comes across as lighter and more frivolous than the others." But it surely isn't frivolous in the context of the work as a whole? "Absolutely not. But sometimes I feel that that's what people are really listening for."

After all the work expended by the likes of Alfred Brendel, Andras Schiff and indeed Imogen Cooper herself to put Schubert's greatness firmly on the musical map in recent decades, can it really be that this image of him as a musical lightweight still sticks? "I'm afraid it does, yes. And it's time it changed. If anything comes out of 1997, I'd like it to be that"n

Imogen Cooper at the Bath Festival: solo and chamber music concerts 25, 30, 31 May and 1 June; masterclass 27 May; live Radio 3 broadcast 22 May (01225 463362). Imogen Cooper is Radio 3's 'Artist of the Week', 19-23 May

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