Imogen Cooper on teaching, tranquility and thematic programming

Pianist Imogen Cooper talks to Claire Jackson about her new project, the Imogen Cooper Music Trust, her International Piano Series recital this June, and her forthcoming Chopin release on Chandos

What was the inspiration behind the creation of the Imogen Cooper Music Trust?
I’m at a stage of my life where things have come together to enable me to do something that I’ve been wanting to do for about a year: I want to be able to give chunks of unlimited time to young musicians, primarily pianists, so that they can access any knowledge that they may find useful. I was given this possibility in my early twenties by wonderful people like Alfred Brendel, Arthur Rubinstein and the Amadeus Quartet.

That’s one strand. The second is that I want to do this in the countryside in peace, and surrounded by beauty. When I teach in an urban environment [Cooper is visiting professor of piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music], or in other places, there is a huge amount of traffic noise and bustle to work against. Of course, so much is accessible through these wonderful institutions, but there is another way of working with music and that is to study in quiet. I believe strongly that the passage of music through one’s being happens much quicker if it’s unencumbered by exterior noise.

Do you have a venue in mind?
I’m lucky to have some dear friends who have a converted 19th century farmhouse in Provence, France – and they are letting me have the place free of charge for two separate weeks each year.

That’s very generous. What form will the teaching take?
There are a lot of misconceptions about young musicians, such as that they are only interested in power and speed, getting through competitions and so on. That hasn’t been my experience at all. I find that for the most part, postgraduate musicians are at a very high level and are thirsting to know how to hold the audience’s attention.

I encourage my students to listen to music – not just the piano repertoire – and to discuss the music they love. We examine work by singers, conductors – this is where YouTube is wonderful – and formulate words about music, which tells us a lot about ourselves; our weak points and why we shy away from certain things. All this can happen when you have six days to think about nothing else – and I’m thrilled to be able to offer this to young musicians.

How will you select the chosen few?
That’s in the development stage; at the moment it happens through invitation but I’m working out how best to spread the net. There is a particular moment for a young pianist when you have the right equipment, and the curiosity. It’s good to be quite tough at this stage, and a certain level of stability is needed in order to benefit. I don’t hesitate to say that I am looking for a very high level.

The emphasis on the rural setting is interesting.
Sándor Végh had this in mind when he set up the IMS [International Musicians Seminar] at Prussia Cove, where I spent my younger years. He was quite strict; he didn’t want anyone to leave the grounds the whole time they were there. There was no question of going to the pub in Penzance! I wouldn’t say the same for this Trust but it happens that the location is quite isolated. It’s much easier to focus in this type of setting. It’s what happens when you’re recording: you record for four days – probably playing and listening for nine to ten hours a day – and you become what your task is, you really don’t know about anything else.

That brings us neatly to your recent recording project: you’ll release your next Chopin disc in June. Why Chopin?
Chopin is central to every pianist’s work. I played a lot of Chopin during my Paris Conservatoire years, but I never felt completely ready to find the new voice that all of us should seek in our playing. It’s difficult with Chopin, possibly because we spend so much time playing his music during our training.

Was it satisfying to return to old works?
Yes, hugely. You understand the practicalities of the music but you also bring the experience of how to interpret a score. As you get older, you know better how to approach a passage so as to make it sound as you hear it in your head. I don’t think this was a particularly weak point of mine, but in the last ten years I’ve certainly honed my practice. I do more reading away from the piano. The instrument can be very beguiling; you can get caught up in fabulous melodies and harmonies and sensuous sound-making; but the danger is that you lose the structure of the piece. That can happen with Chopin; he’s hopelessly seductive. You must digest the information so that it stands as a whole arc. I performed Chopin a lot last year, together with Schumann.

You’re performing at St John’s Smith Square on 8 June as part of the Southbank Centre’s International Piano Series; what will you play?
I’m doing a wonderful programme: Schumann in the first half [Theme and variations in E flat, WoO.24 (Ghost Variations) and ‘Davidsbündlertänze’, Op.6], and in the second half I’m playing four pieces from Liszt’s ‘Années de pèlerinage’ [‘Spozalizio’, ‘Il Penseroso’, ‘Canzonetta del Salvator Rosa’ and ‘Sonetto’] and works that connect Liszt and Wagner. First, the Wagner Elegy in A flat, which is a twelve bar piece that evokes ‘Tristan’. After that I’m playing the ‘Prelude’ from ‘Tristan’ as arranged by Zoltán Kocsis, which he made in the late seventies.

What an exciting programme!
Well, we’re not done yet: at the end I’ll play Liszt’s arrangement of Wagner’s ‘Liebestod’, and between the ‘Prelude’ and the ‘Liebestod’ I’m doing Liszt’s ‘La lugubre gondola’, there is a strong historical link to all of these pieces. ‘La lugubre gondola’ is so different from the ‘Années de pèlerinage’, you’d hardly know it was the same composer.

Music is surprisingly varied.
It’s a source of constant wonder how rich music can be. The strength of the connection between performer and audience is something pretty miraculous – and more and more necessary in an unstable world. I’m trying my very best to do honour to that. It is in itself a loving duty.

Imogen Cooper performs at St John Smith’s Square on 8 June as part of the International Piano Series. Her Chopin disc on Chandos is released in the same month.

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