CHOPIN The Complete Mazurkas (Joanna MacGregor)
Joanna MacGregor is a pianist who never fails to surprise, and the complete Chopin mazurkas has become a recital favourite of late. Chopin? Yes, I did a bit of a double-take too, for he’s not a composer I would naturally associate with MacGregor, an artist who excels above all in music that is rhythmically led. Colour is not, I would say, her strong point.
So I approached this two-CD set with a sense of intrigued interest; it is designed to take the listener on a journey from early to late Chopin, in the process splitting Opp 67 and 68. She writes her own notes, which are wide-ranging in their references, and her playing very much bears out her thoughts – so, for instance, in the final mazurka of Op 50 she makes us more than usually aware of its Bachian counterpoint and the harmonic daring of its coda.
Sometimes I found her too dry in effect, in a mazurka such as Op 41 No 2 or the drone-suffused sections of Op 56 No 2. And I did wonder what you’d make of the A minor, KK IIb No 4, if you’d never previously encountered it – MacGregor sounds dangerously meandering here.
Elegance is not a MacGregor trademark either, and where Chopin calls for it (admittedly it’s a rarer beast here in the mazurkas than in most of his other genre pieces) she looks for other solutions. The A flat major, Op 50 No 2, for instance, which in Rubinstein’s hands has all the time in the world, here darts around nervously, its D flat major inner section finding none of the delicious contrast of Rubinstein. In the earliest mazurkas this can also be a bit of an issue, for MacGregor seems ill at ease with their simplicity (sample tracks 1 and 3 on the first disc). And if comparing her with Rubinstein seems an odd choice, I do it on account of their both being strong musical personalities, even if they are at different ends of the interpretative scale.
MacGregor is most compelling where Chopin is at his most experimental: the second of the Op 63 Mazurkas, for instance, with its dissonant opening, or the third, for that matter, with its generous helping of what she describes as ‘klezmer music … ironic and wonderfully cultured’. Among the earlier ones, she enjoys the skittering adventurousness of Op 17 No 3, while the five that make up Op 7 form a vibrant study in contrasts.
For mazurkas with a difference, give these a try. But I’m not entirely convinced that MacGregor is a natural when it comes to Chopin.