How are we to approach a capable, very musical, but not inspired pianist like Imogen Cooper? She has undertaken a series of twofers on the Naive label that are centered, we are told, around the late piano sonatas of Schubert. I first knew of Cooper when she became the regular accompanist for baritone Wolfgang Holzmair on Philips. She was very good in that role, but I didn't hear a great potential for solo playing. Her fans in England would disagree; Cooper is a noted feature of the musical scene there, and she also appears in concertos with American orchestras.
All of that is to the good, but in late Schubert the long shadow of greatness can't be escaped. Richter, Schnabel, and Pollini are my touchstones in this repertoire; others would name Serkin, Lupu, Brendel, and Schiff. For virtuoso power there's Kissin and even Horowitz in the last sonata in B flat, D. 960. Cooper falls into a range of expression that's very pleasurable but not truly probing or exciting. Her approach to the haunting C minor sonata D. 958 is energetic, alert, and basically straightforward. After an infectious first movement, the Adagio is sensitive but a bit foursquare; you don't hear its ultimate poetry. The Menuetto has a nice underlying swing and sway; the finale needs to be more sparkling and vibrant but is certainly good on its own terms.
The other big sonata on the second CD is the one in G Major, D. 894. It's opening theme has a hesitant rocking motion that reminds me of Mahler's equally undecided opening to the Ninth Sym. Beginning in half shadow like this poses a challenge to every interpreter, and Cooper has found a sensitive middle course, neither as aggressive as Richter nor as mannered as Uchida. Schubert didn't write his sonatas for virtuosos; much is to be achieved by knowing how to sing. Cooper does, although her voice isn't totally memorable as Pollini's is -- his lyrical line is totally compelling. In all fairness, not every pianist wants to be charismatic. Cooper invites us into a more intimate listening experience. I think the four Impromptus D. 935 need at least some charisma. Making my way through them, the Moments musicaux, and the German Dances that Cooper has selected became increasingly monotonous. She might have done better releasing one CD at a time rather than two.
Despite these reservations, I'd give this second installment a guarded four stars, with a special nod to listeners who want Schubert to be lulling rather than dynamic.