Joanna MacGregor: Piano Works by Conlon Nancarrow

The remarkable composer Conlon Nancarrow came from Arkansas, played jazz trumpet, fought for the Communists in the Spanish Civil war, then relocated to Mexico City to devote his life to canons and studies. This recording brings together multitracked, boogie woogie Player Piano Studies 3c, 6 & 11, Three Canons for Ursula and his early jazz work, Prelude and Blues.

Few pianists have recorded a more enterprising or vibrant repertoire than Joanna MacGregor, with the stress on continuities as well as contrasts and on the eternal verities underlying music of seemingly irreconcilable diversity. Now, following hard on the heels of her magnificent set of Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jèsus, she takes on an even more daunting task, one of music’s profoundest enigmas with dazzling contemporary virtuosity. In her witty and incisive notes, MacGregor gently but firmly compels us to hear a vital relationship between eighteenth- and twentieth-century composers who see fugue and canon as the highest musical good, a “sounding mathematics” which “achieves a depth and simplicity and at times a luminous serenity”. MacGregor has, of course, recorded Nancarrow before for Collins (his witty, cocktail banter, Prelude and Blues, 8/89) but here the juxtaposition is the thing.

Using multi-track techniques she emulates and excels Nancarrow’s original player piano capacity for intricacy. Quaver-durations of a very fast tempo of 5,5,6,4; 5,5,3,4; 5,4,3,3,2 (I am quoting MacGregor again) in Study No. 11, end in a fantastic virtuoso uproar and remind one of a related complexity in “Canon B”, the second of the Three Canons for Ursula. The difficulties are immense but in Joanna MacGregor such music has a superlative champion.

Gramophone Magazine

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