Review: Joanna MacGregor, Buxton International Festival

There are times when the condition of the human race leaves you doubtful about its purpose and positive capabilities. Then you sit in a modest building in a small town. There is a stage in front of you and on it stands a grand piano – a marvel of design, engineering and technology. Then someone comes onto the stage, sits at the piano and dives into 75 minutes of music making of such vitality, beauty and intensity – and you are in awe of the imagination that led to it’s composition and the virtuosity, concentration and musicality that makes the playing possible.

Joanna MacGregor is one the most important British musicians of her generation. Her significance rests not just on her rare ability as a pianist but also her integrity – she plays only music that she believes in and has always been an advocate of composers and music that is seldom heard in major concert halls.

For her Buxton programme she included the Turkish composer Fazil Say’s ‘Black Earth’. Say is relatively well known and this piece – with its three note motif and plucking of the strings – turns up on the radio from time to time. It is a contemplative piece with a beauty that ripples through it. The music of Russian-born Sofia Gubaidulina has been recorded for the European label ECM and as such has enjoyed a wider recognition. Her music for solo piano dates back to early in her career as a composer and is less familiar. ‘Chaconne’ is born out of her love for Bach – though it’s a thoroughly 20th Century piece.

The first half of the recital concluded with Alberto Ginastera’s Danzas Argentinas – which are, in turn, romantic and firecrackers which brought cheers from an audience that had already feasted on totally compelling accounts of Beethoven’s 32 Variations and two Chopin Mazurkas. The Beethoven is music of great compression – rich in melody, movement and mood. By contrast the Chopin, especially in the opening, is a little less defined, more elusive.

Joanna’s programme ended with Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. This is Beethoven at his most Romantic and it is one her great achievements as a musician that you want to hear the music again, immediately.

Oddly, I find, Lenin had the highest regard for the Appassionata: “I always think with pride… what marvellous things humans can do.” With that we can all agree.

By Keith Savage