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S & H Recital Review

Bach, Goldberg Variations Joanna MacGregor (piano), Wigmore Hall, 1pm, Monday May 24th, 2004 (CC)

The sight of programme notes that include such descriptions of variations from Bach’s Goldbergs as ‘Shadow-play’; ‘Machine-gun fire’ or (worse) ‘2 flamingos right hand’; ‘laughing gas’; or (worst of all) ‘Betty Boop Variation’ hardly inspired confidence. That these notes eschewed all of the usual historical placement and that they were written by the performer (in collaboration with Robin Stowell) made me wonder exactly what was in store this particular Monday lunchtime.

In the event, Joanna MacGregor gave a memorable account of the musical edifice that is the Goldbergs. Her rather frivolous descriptions perhaps were there to imply that JSB had a sense of humour (not always acknowledged, it has to be said). MacGregor’s goal seemed to be to portray Bach as a very human composer - albeit one of the highest genius. Her care in performance was everywhere apparent, not least in the ‘Aria’ that opens proceedings. It was soon apparent that technical issues would remain irrelevant, for the earlier variations revealed great finger-strength and a massive variety of tonal resource. Only towards the end did her concentration (and therefore some technical excellence) falter.

MacGregor clearly has a sense of fun, too (heard in Variation 11, her ‘Betty Boop’ Variation, so-called because when she was in Sydney learning the Goldbergs she passed a shop every morning selling Betty Boop T shirts). She is not afraid of the sustaining pedal, and would use it to create a specific atmosphere (Variation 22, which she calls, ‘Gateway to another world’). It was, in fact, the more languorous Variations that remain in the memory, despite the great amount of joy to be gleaned from the faster, more foot-loose items. And, yes, I do see her point when she refers to Variation 15 as reminiscent of the Ligeti Etude ‘which creeps off the top of the keyboard’.

The return of the Aria at the very end is a master-stroke on Bach’s part. Inevitably recontextualised in our hearing after all that has occurred, MacGregor seemed at pains to underline a further aspect of this homecoming. By keeping the sustaining pedal down after Variation 30, the Aria emerged from the aural mists, as if it had been there all along (as, indeed, in a way, it had).

Very different Bach from that of Angela Hewitt, whose Wigmore recital last September also left its mark. If the text is indeed a generator of multiple interpretations, and perhaps Bach’s texts more than most, we should count ourselves lucky to be able to compare and contrast such pianistic riches.

Television cameras from BBC Wales were in attendance, and the recital is due for telecast this Summer on BBC1.

Colin Clarke



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