Interview: Imogen Cooper

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Imogen Cooper’s appointment as a Humanitas Visiting Professor in Classical Music and Music Education tops a list of glittering achievements. She regularly gives recitals in prestigious concert halls worldwide, and also performs regularly as a soloist (alongside a number of major orchestras) and chamber musician. With such a stunning resumé, her thoughtful and softly-spoken manner comes as a pleasant surprise.

I meet Imogen the day after the inaugural Humanitas recital (a programme of Schubert). When I raise the topic of her new position, I find her to be remarkably self-deprecatory. “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!” Imogen had to consider what she could bring to the position. “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 performer; what happens for the audience; what happens with the audience, between the performer and audience.”

These are questions that Cooper intends to explore over the subsequent parts of her Professorship, but she acknowledges that not everyone wishes to confront these issues. “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.”

I ask what other issues she hopes to examine. “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!” Cooper’s delight in her new position is tangible. “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!”

Schubert has long been a central part of Cooper’s repertoire, and so it seems only right that I should bring the composer into our conversation. Cooper was first drawn to the composer’s music by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s Lieder performances. She reveals that it was the composer’s humanity which intrigued her the most. “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.”

Something which has particularly struck me about Cooper’s Schubert interpretations is the connection between the violent and calm: it seems almost inevitable that one emerges from the other. “I think it was part of his psyche that everything is completely intermingled. Schubert had this particular capacity 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.”

Schubert composed a jaw-dropping amount of music in his last few months and completed his last three sonatas in September 1828 (he would die in November). However, Cooper sees no point in wondering what might have been. “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.” At one point, Cooper pauses. “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.”

Cooper tells me of a good luck ritual she shares with the baritone Wolfgang Holzmair. “Before going on the platform, we spit on each other’s shoulders and say “erzähl die Geschichte” (“tell the story”).” Whichever direction her career should take, long may the story continue. 

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