Joanna Macgregor - Counterpoint

Published Tuesday 3rd September 2019
Joanna Macgregor - Counterpoint
Joanna Macgregor - Counterpoint

STYLE: Classical
RATING 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9 9
LABEL: Collins 70432

Reviewed by Steven Whitehead

The album 'Counterpoint' starts with Johann Sebastian Bach's monumental "Art Of Fugue" and follows it with a challenging set of canons and studies by the 20th century composer Conlan Nancarrow. I think it may have been the great Bachian critic Wilfrid Mellers who described the "Art Of Fugue" as being a conversation between God and Bach in an empty church. The church is empty because the composition comes after the many prolific years when Bach was writing new cantatas almost on a weekly basis and then running off another Oratorio in his spare time all the while training and directing choirs and teaching other musicians, and also being the most famous organist of his day. Throughout his life Bach was a teacher and the "Art Of Fugue" can be seen as his last will and testament, laying out his lifetime's experience in harmonic composition and in the process giving us what some consider his finest work while setting a puzzle that has left musicians and critics thinking and sometimes arguing ever since. Quite possibly Bach was not writing a performance piece but instead was sketching out ideas for others to develop. He may not have had the piano in mind as, back then, the harpsicord was generally the instrument of choice. Over the years the "Art Of Fugue" has been played on almost every conceivable instrument both by soloists and ensembles and the number of recordings keeps growing. The version under review is by Joanna Macgregor who is playing a Steinway piano at St George's in Bristol in 1995. Back then, Macgregor was a rising star in classical music and since then has become known by many through her innovative music books 'PianoWorld' and as Head of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music and Professor at the University of London. Her playing on this recording is restrained. She gives us all the right notes in the right order so we can hear and follow what Bach was doing. I find this most useful as a reference recording so when I hear other more flamboyant versions, I can go back to this one to compare and contrast. Bach left the "Art Of Fugue" incomplete (or, if you like conspiracies, the ending was lost) so some performers just leave the final note hanging while others construct an ending. Macgregor choses to use Bach's own four-hand version of the second mirror fugue, "Contrapunctus 13 Alio Modo" as a concluding bridge leading us across the centuries to the multi-tracking necessary for the rest of disc two from the American Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997). Nancarrow composed for player pianos rather than piano players and no doubt had he been born later and in Germany would have joined Kraftwerk. While his music is different to Bach's he employs many of the fugal techniques first outlined by Johann Sebastian all those years ago and the two sit surprisingly well together. This collection was first released as a double CD in 1995 on the now defunct Collins Classics label and has since been re-issued both with and without Nancarrow's contribution and remains available to download.

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.

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