British pianist and noted Mozart interpreter Imogen Cooper led, and played in, an eloquent performance of a pair of the composer’s piano concertos on Thursday.
When some of the Seattle Symphony is in the pit for opera at McCaw Hall — this week for “Ariadne auf Naxos” — others give the regular Thursday/Saturday concerts at Benaroya. These are always given up to music that is best with a smaller group, and Thursday night was no exception. British pianist Imogen Cooper led fewer than 30 string players and assorted winds in eloquent performances of two Mozart piano concertos: No. 17 in G Major and No. 24 in C Minor.
To say she “led” is perhaps the wrong word. This was a notably collaborative performance. Much of the time and at the start of most movements, the lead was given by concertmaster Alexander Velinzon, and the musicians functioned as a large chamber group, listening to each other and staying impeccably together in tempos, balance, rhythm and dynamics. This, despite it being perhaps impossible for cello principal Meeka Quan DiLorenzo or bass principal Jordan Anderson even to see Velinzon.
When Cooper was not playing, she gestured low some of the time with her left hand, gestures that could be seen by front-desk musicians, but as much as anything seemed an extension of her feeling rather than a direction. Clearly the musicians loved this approach. She was applauded enthusiastically at her arrival on stage and at concert’s end. What she created was a performance of equals, which is probably how it was done in the 18th century, when these concertos were composed.
Seattle Symphony: Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 17 & 24
With Imogen Cooper, piano and conductor, repeats 8 p.m. Saturday, May 9, Benaroya Hall, Seattle; tickets from $20 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
Cooper herself is an exemplary example of how Mozart is best played today, discerning and expressing every nuance without overdoing it, portraying emotion with restraint, and introspection lightly carried though clearly present. The lighthearted charm of the first and last movements of No. 17 were contrasted with that restraint and introspection in the slow movement, where the orchestra gave light accompaniment to the outward serenity combined with inner depth of Cooper’s playing.
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The two concertos are major contrasts. No. 24 heralds the romantic works coming out a few decades later; it could be almost Beethovenian in its passionate expression.
With many more winds than No. 17, it has a portentous beginning and generally weightier feel. The superb wind playing throughout the concert, but particularly in this concerto, came to the fore with winds and strings alternating and the piano running around all over the place in rippling comment. The cadenza at the end of the first movement is a passionate one, with angst felt in Cooper’s playing.
The sunnier slow movement proved the heart of the work in an exquisite, moving performance, while the stormy final one had a mournful feel to the piano role. Here again, Cooper brought out all the emotional content of the concerto but always in 18th century context. She rarely played thunderously loud, but brought a crystalline edge (sometimes almost too much so) to more forceful passages, while at others her playing had a liquid tranquillity.
Cooper is a musician of the old school, and her fingerwork is not quite always as clear and even as some of today’s younger pianists, but her musicianship has the maturity of years of consideration and discrimination.
Brought back by the audience several times, she played Chopin’s Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23, as an encore.