Imogen Cooper at St George's, Bristol

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The intertwined lives of Clara Wieck, Schumann and Brahms were in the spotlight for this recital, writes Rebecca Franks

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Imogen Cooper at St George's, Bristol
Pianist Imogen Cooper

Forbidden romance, secret letters, the headlong rush of love: it’s out of this heady emotional mix that much of the music of Imogen Cooper’s recent recital at St George’s Bristol emerged. At the heart of her thoughtfully crafted programme was that gift of a true story – the relationship between Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck, he a troubled genius composer, she one of the greatest concert pianists of her day. Theirs was a fraught and fervent affair. This recital wasn’t an attempt to give any means comprehensive account of their lives, but instead offered tantalising snapshots of the music they wrote, heard and played.

Cooper is a pianist of poise, authority and sensitivity, master of an exquisitely beautiful tone. She judged to perfection the opening trio of pieces – two by Wieck, one by Schumann – moving from artless simplicity and tenderness in Wieck's 1835 B minor Romance to the richer colours of Schumann’s F sharp minor Romance, which Wieck described as a ‘beautiful love duet’. And Cooper's fingers were dancer-light in Wieck's Scène fantastique: la ballet des revenants, also from 1835.

Schumann’s Humoresque, written when he was in Vienna, and at the height of his problems with Clara’s vehemently disapproving father, expresses a tumble of emotions. ‘The whole week I have been sitting at the piano and composing and writing and laughing and crying at the same time,’ wrote Robert to Clara. Cooper captured the headlong rush of love for Clara, the spring-in-the-step ebullience that Schumann does so well. But in the introspective, soulful moments, she seemed to be turned outward rather than within – Schumann was still calling from the rooftops about his love rather than singing to himself and his diary.

There could be no greater contrast between the youthful energy of the Humoresque and the Brahms Variations in D minor that followed. Arranged by Brahms in 1860 from his String Sextet No. 1, as a birthday gift for Clara, this is music of noble austerity. By the time of its writing, Schumann had died in a lunatic asylum and Brahms had fallen in and out of love with Clara. Cooper brought a polished lustre to the dark hues of these six variations. It was every bit as revelatory as her recent Chandos recording of this piece.

Schumann always championed Schubert, whose great late Sonata, the B flat D960, crowned the recital. Brahms, too, who wasn’t so keen on Schubert’s sonatas, was impressed by these later works. Renowned for her Schubert, Cooper sailed serene through the long-breathed melodies of the first movement, with its troubled trills somehow suggesting a darkness so different from that of the Brahms Variations. The Andante Sostenuto evoked Winterreise in its sense of resignation, but somehow didn't quite chill to the bone. And there were moments where some of the music's drama felt dulled almost as if in favour of maintaining that perfect tone.