Pianist Imogen Cooper shares the music that has shaped her
The distinguished soloist, accompanist and chamber musician guides us through some of the key music of her life and career
A peerless interpreter of Classical and Romantic repertoire, Imogen Cooper is an international soloist, a distinguished accompanist and a committed chamber musician. Her most recent public performance was as part of a Schubertiade at the London Piano Festival at Kings Place on 7 October. The evening of piano duets saw Imogen Cooper perform with Katya Apekisheva, Charles Owen and Dominic Degavino, all three of whom have been taught by her in the past.
Here, Imogen discusses the music that has shaped her.
'At the age of three I was taken to Covent Garden to see Rigoletto, which was a slightly bloodthirsty choice for a three-year-old! I wasn’t scared but it did open dark rich vistas and above all there was this unbelievable music. One of the things I most remember was the aria ‘Caro nome’. I don’t know who sang it then (this was the early ’50s), but if I had to choose a recording I would go for Maria Callas. For some reason the Evening Standard [itals] photographer was there and there’s a photo in the family album of me with big round cheeks, wearing a polka-dot taffeta dress, standing smiling on the steps up to the Crush Bar.
'It may have been around then, as I was clambering on the piano stool and playing tunes with one finger, that I decided to be a pianist. My older siblings played instruments but they all gave it up after a while, particularly when I nailed my colours to the mast. I doggedly stuck with it and here I am after all these years.
'Next, we jump forward to my years studying in Paris, from 12 to 18, when I lived in a hostel for girls training to be engineers, run by nuns. As well as an upright piano in my small room there was a wind-up gramophone with a stack of LPs in the dining room. When meals were finished for the day I took it out of the cupboard and listened to whatever I could. That’s where I discovered the Beethoven String Quartets, particularly the slow movement of Op. 132 in A minor, ‘Heilige dankgesang’, played by the Amadeus Quartet, which really hit me amidships.
Because my father was a critic he was sent new recordings to review every month, and one day he received some of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies by a fellow called Alfred Brendel. I heard the Second and thought instantly, ‘I have got to find a way of working with this man.’ I must have been 19 – I’d finished the conservatoire, I’d played to people including Rubinstein, and I needed another spell of being with a teacher and being closely overseen.
'It happened that Brendel was coming to give a concert at the Austrian Institute and I went to hear him play Chopin and Schubert. Afterwards I said to him, ‘I’ve got to work with you or I’ll die,’ and he said ‘Well don’t die, why don’t you come to me in Vienna?
'I got on the train to Vienna, a long overnight journey in 1970, and I went to a concert in the evening in the Brahmssaal. I heard the Janáček Quartet playing Janáček’s Second String Quartet, ‘Intimate Letters’. This quartet, not in their first youth, played without scores; they sat there having a conversation with each other. It was extraordinary and the experience marked the beginning of the period of work I did with Brendel.
'I was there for seven weeks that year and six weeks the next year, after which he came to live in London. But by then I had done most of my work with him. He was a very intense teacher and I was like a sponge – I took on as much information as I could but quickly realised that I needed to digest it and make it my own.
'I was brought up Catholic and in my early twenties I was still going through an intense phase of belief. Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers were hugely important to me then – they linked my faith to Europe, as opposed to what was effectively an opposition faith in an Anglican country. Ironically I’ve chosen an English recording by John Eliot Gardiner, but filmed in the Basilica di San Marco in 1990. I love this DVD because there’s a wonderful sense of play and mystery amid the grandiosity of that extraordinary building. I still dream of hearing it live in San Marco some day!'
Imogen Cooper's choices
Callas, Gobbi, Di Stefano et al; Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala Milan/Serafin
Warner Classics 2564634095
Beethoven String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132
Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody, S244 No. 2 in C sharp minor
Vanguard Classics ATMCD1213
Janáček String Quartet No. 2 ‘Intimate Letters'
Janáček String Quartet
Monteverdi Vespro della beata Vergine (1610)
English Baroque Soloists; Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner
DG 483 8464 (2CD/1DVD)