Star pianist pairs Shostakovich and Bach in an intimate start to Sydney Opera House music series.

Sydney Opera House Utzon Room

April 6, 2014

There’s nothing new about performing excerpts from J.S. Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier alongside Shostakovich’s 24 preludes and fugues.

A few years back Roger Woodward did it in concert in Sydney. But whereas that was series with a Herculean aspect to it, much like Angela Hewitt’s performance of the entire Glorious 48 at the 2008 Musica Viva Festival, British pianist Joanna MacGregor’s brief survey of four preludes and fugues from each composer was intimate and ideally tailored for the Opera House’s Utzon Room.

MacGregor is a warm, witty and inspiring performer. She is billed as a 'provocateuse' for her imaginative programs and crossover collaborations, which include UK jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard and rock guru Brian Eno. She is also a composer in her own right, a conductor and teacher. She is currently head of piano at the Royal Academy of Music.

This holistic approach to music showed in her Sydney program. Rather than pitching Bach and Shostakovich against each other this was more a question and answer session, with Bach of course asking and Shostakovich responding.

MacGregor believes the composers have much in common musically, which she neatly encapsulated in the quip: "Bach’s jazzy and modern while Shostakovich is suitably archaic."

Under her fingers the Bach breathed and the Shostakovich crackled into life.

By way of contrast, and as an example of MacGregor’s adventurous choices, next on the program were Sofia Gubaidulina’s “under-rated’’ 14 short pieces for children, Musical Toys. These include a mechanical accordion, a woodpecker, a bear on a double bass and a trumpeter in a forest. Some only last about 40 seconds, which MacGregor pointed out was not much time to get them right.

Six of Astor Piazzolla’s tangos brought the recital to a vigorous and at times steamy close. MacGregor had performed with members of Piazzolla’s quintet eight years ago so the feeling here was authentic.

"The band were a little rough in their approach to music," she said. "They were also very old – about 84 – playing with what they thought of as this young girl."

Some of the pieces were familiar – Milonga del angel was given a suitably soulful and romantic treatment while the ever-popular Libertango made a fitting finale with its urgent and passionate right hand flurries over a thunderous descending chord sequence.

Called back for an encore, MacGregor said: "I’ll play something quiet. When I say it’s by Harrison Birtwhistle that might strike terror in your heart!" The piece was unpublished and MacGregor’s score was in the composer’s own hand.

It was short and delightful, but to restore the celebratory mood of the afternoon the audience was given a last tango by Piazzolla.

The Utzon series of recitals continues on Sunday, June 1, with the ACO’s principal cellist Timo-Veikko Valve and harpsichordist Neal Peres Da Costa performing a program of Bach.

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