United Kingdom Bach, Shostakovich, Chopin, Ives, Monk, Piazzolla, Pärt: Joanna MacGregor (piano), Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 23.1.2015. (CR)
Bach Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV846
Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in C major, Op.87 no.1
Bach Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV847
Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, Op.87 no.19
Bach Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, BWV853
Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue in D flat major, Op.87 no.15
Chopin Mazurkas in F sharp minor, Op. 6 no. 1; in E minor, Op. 17 no. 2; in A flat major, Op. 59 no. 2; in D flat major, Op. 30 no. 3; in A minor, Op. 17 no. 4; in C sharp minor, Op. 50 no. 3
Ives The Alcotts – Concord Sonata
Thelonious Monk Monk’s Point
Traditional Deep River
Professor Longhair Big Chief
Traditional Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down
Piazzolla (arr. MacGregor) Tangos: Tanguedia; Buenos Aires hora cero; Milonga del Angel; Michelangelo 70; Soledad; Libertango
Joanna MacGregor gave a very personal programme of music which has been instrumental in her development as a human being and a pianist, encompassing both some of the Western tradition’s cornerstone works of the keyboard repertoire, and an array of jazz- or folk-inflected works from the Americas. In view of that, allowance may be made for some occasionally idiomatic responses to the compositions featured.
Her choice of works, and their ordering, were also designed to draw connections between different times and traditions. The first sequence paired three preludes and fugues from the First Book of The Well-Tempered Clavier with three from Shostakovich’s set of twenty four. The Bach Preludes in C major and C minor were taken briskly (the latter sounding close to a furious swarm of bees) but with the opening notes of each bar in both cases emphasised, these movements’ harmonic logic was revealed. In comparison, the E flat minor Prelude was more poised, as was the Fugue in relation to the others, though each entry of the subjects in the fugues were clear without being artificially exaggerated.
If some of the jagged fury in the Bach anticipated a certain aspect of Beethoven, some of the qualities of MacGregor’s performances of her Shostakovich also recalled Beethoven – either the resignation and transcendentalism of the late Sonatas in the opening C major Prelude here, or in the heroic gestures of the E flat major pair. Authentically Shostakovichian was the sardonic disposition of some of the D flat major Prelude, as was the nervous excitability of the unfalteringly energetic Fugue after it, bearing a similar temperament as the finale of the Quartet No. 12 in the same key, and also surely drawing inspiration from the rhythmic vitality of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge.
MacGregor next performed a sequence of Chopin’s mazurkas from different times in his life, contrasting the variety of moods and textures encompassed in these quintessentially Polish compositions. She resisted the temptation to lapse into any too dreamy or rarefied an atmosphere, such that the famous example in A minor Op.17 no.4 was quite fluid. The F sharp minor Mazurka Op.6 no.1 was perhaps even slightly too hurried, as the way in which rubato was observed resulted in ungainly little bursts or spasms in the flow of the music after it was held back each time.
The first series of pieces in the second half of the programme stemmed from MacGregor’s travels in North America, progressively leading the audience away from the more formal procedures of Western Classical traditions. The extract from Ives’s Concord Sonata mixes a tranquil reflection upon the famous opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with American songs, which MacGregor accomplished without any sense of incongruity opening the way into the world of jazz and spirituals. The opening part of Thelonious Monk’s Monk’s Point seemed somewhat stiff and formal, with its off-beat chords sounding more like the serialist techniques contriving a formal unpredictability in the keyboard works of Boulez or Stockhausen, or Messiaen’s Mode de valeurs et d’insités, than a loosening up into the aesthetic of jazz. However, the latter part of the work and Professor Longhair’s Big Chief were more at ease with themselves. Two unattributed arrangements of gospel songs were interspersed, with ‘Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down’ radiating joy, and ‘Deep River’ comprising a series of dramatic chordal tremolos, ebbing and flowing somewhat like an ambient soundscape by William Orbit or Brian Eno, in which the melody was more implied by the quivering harmonies than given out directly.
The selection of six of Piazzolla’s tangos were strung together in MacGregor’s own arrangement for piano without a break, so as to constitute an almost symphonic sequence of feverish dances – rather as Ravel did for the waltz in La Valse. The arrangement exploited many of the piano’s orchestral and virtuosic possibilities, including glissandos, pedalling, and plucking and strumming the strings inside the instrument’s frame to elicit yet further timbres. MacGregor contrasted the more refined, slower sections of the dances, harking back to old musical soundworld of Piazzolla’s forebears such as Albeniz and Granados, with the rawer, ecstatic elements of the tango – the distinctive dance of Argentina, as the mazurka is of Poland.
The emotional temperature was soon doused with ice by the crystalline tintinnabulations of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina, delicately and austerely sounded out over the held pedal notes.