Joanna MacGregor Play Review

Album. Released 2001.  

BBC Review

Listen to this CD first without reading the sleeve notes or the track list. It'll be...

Matthew Shorter 2002

You know you're in trouble halfway through the first track -you've just got used to Alasdair Nicolson's Art-Tatum-meets-Cyberpunk stomp, when it's suddenly interrupted by a quote from The Rite of Spring, played with a seriousness that says "go on and laugh, I dare you!"

You might expect a CD which embraces everything from the North American avant-garde to Elizabethan England, taking in musical trips to Argentina and India on the way, to suffer from problems of coherence. You'd be underestimating the unifying power of Joanna MacGregor's performance.

Everything in this ostentatiously eclectic collection is played with attitude. Joanna MacGregor's career is practically built on a reinvention of the star virtuoso tradition, applied to the often cerebral and style-oblivious world of contemporary music. But MacGregor's verve, energy and astounding technique are always at the service of the music and never vice versa. Her ability to inhabit so many sound worlds with the same intensity and commitment is profoundly impressive - so why not flaunt it?

If the result ends up feeling like something of a showcase, it is still clearly grounded in contemporary classical repertoire. Excursions into early and non-European music and jazz affirm the openness to influence of modern classical music, and are reflected in the concerns of the straight classical composers represented - Conlon Nancarrow and Nicolson with their boogie-woogie influences, the hip-hop rhythms in MacGregor's own track, Ligeti and Cage with African percussion never far in the background. Conversely when MacGregor plays jazz or tango or Baroque she brings to it a very modern-classical intelligence and clarity.

Some of the best moments are in the intriguing junctions between tracks, generally placed with hardly a pause between them. Going from the impassioned juggernaut of Astor Piazzolla's Libertango to the delicate early Baroque filligree of William Byrd's Hughe Ashton's Ground was particularly poignant.

Listen to this CD first without reading the sleeve notes or the track list. It'll be like visiting a particularly thoughtfully hung and exciting art exhibition without getting distracted by the panels describing the works. Part of the enjoyment comes from the unexpected textural surprises - speech tracks, tape loops, mic delays, prepared piano, tablas, jazz band and more. Once you've done that, though, the sleeve notes themselves are delightful, pulling photography and poetry into wonderful juxtapositions with the music.

Essential listening.

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