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Joanna MacGregor is a brilliant light in the piano world'

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Joanna MacGregor will be appearing at Cambridge Summer Music Festival 2018
Joanna MacGregor will be appearing at Cambridge Summer Music Festival 2018

Eagerly awaited at this year's Cambridge Summer Music Festival was Joanna MacGregor's recital on Saturday (July 14) at West Road Concert Hall.

The renowned pianist arrived on the platform and immediately powered expertly into Beethoven’s 32 Variations. This short work is so demanding that for many performers, one imagines, it would better serve as an encore than an introduction, and especially for the kind of taxing programme with which Joanna was to follow it.

Vladimir Horowitz said that there was more music in one of Chopin’s mazurkas than in the entire works of Wagner put together. Joanna went on to play two sets of them, seven chosen from almost 60, each of pure gold, one better than the other.

One sensed as she concluded that the audience would have been quite happy to have listened to the entire collection so captivatingly played, and Joanna reminded us that she had performed Chopin before at West Road – in her finals recital (she was a student at Murray Edwards College, formerly New Hall).

Appropriately following some of the most elusive dances ever written, were three by the Argentinian composer Ginastera. The central piece, somewhat reminiscent of the quieter movements in Albeniz’ Iberia suite, was framed by two wilder ones reflecting Ginastera’s enthusiasm for the life of the Argentine Gaucho. The last of them tested the piano almost to destruction.

There the concert could well have memorably ended. But what had preceded turned out to be merely a foretaste of things yet to come.

When she returned after the interval Joanna explained to the audience that the two works she would next play were both modern and ground-breaking in the same manner as Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata with which she would follow them.

Introducing Tatar-Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, inspired by Bach and beginning and ending in his beloved key of B minor, she warned us that this work was a bit “scary”. And in her hands it did at times transform the piano into a positively frightening instrument.

An evocative short composition Black Earth by the Turkish classical pianist and jazz improviser, Fazil Say, was next. Here the piano was made at intervals to imitate the sound of the ‘oud’ or short-stemmed Turkish lute, with Joanna reaching in to use her hands to damp the strings and produce the haunting tone of that instrument.

By this time the audience had become truly enthralled, and still the Appassionata, one of the greatest of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, was to come.

Joanna’s presentation of this deeply romantic and lengthy composition was enormously charged and intense, her movements and expressions revealing the extent to which she was completely inhabiting the music, finding all the subtleties and nuances amidst the turbo-charged energy it demanded.

It seemed almost unfair for us lesser mortals, quietly deliquescing in the summer heat, to expect an encore after a performance of such sustained artistry. Already, the 32 Variations of Beethoven seemed a long time ago.

However, Joanna generously returned and launched into her driving boogie and jazz rhythm arrangement of Piazzolla’s Libertango, her delivery of it astounding, beyond virtuosity, and bringing the entire audience to their feet.

Joanna MacGregor is a brilliant light in the piano world. Her appearance in Cambridge on Saturday will live in the memory of anyone fortunate enough to have been there.

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