Lockdown Diaries: Joanna MacGregor



International Piano Magazine: When did you first hear Messiaen's music?

There are two very strong memories: George Benjamin insisting on playing me the fifth movement of Turangalîla on an LP when we were students together (I thought it sounded like cosmic carousel music, beaming out of a tiny little record player) and, a couple of years later, seeing John Ogdon play Vingt Regards.

By that stage I played a few movements myself, but I was immensely moved by Ogden’s emotional fragility and virtuosic strength dealing with this huge work. It was a complex experience for me.

How universal, in your view, is his appeal? Is this music for children or does it require adult perspectives?

The length of some of his pieces or movements probably creates a problem for children; but in my experience young children absolutely love something loud, dissonant and exciting. There’s a thrilling amount of colour and swirling movement in many of his works, to delight someone young – Joie du sang des Étoiles being one example. And anyway there are many entry points; I would have thought that the story of the first performance of Quatuor pour la fin du temps would fascinate teenagers working on World War II, and along the way they’d find some of that music enthralling. I think most of us can’t take in everything, immediately.

What of its challenges to the performer? Are there particular challenges unique or definitively peculiar to Messiaen?

For pianists, if you’ve played Bach, they’ll be resonances in Messiaen’s constant fascination with numerology and counterpoint. It doesn’t make the music dry, but it gives it fantastic, Gothic architecture; the music is always underpinned by foundations that are rock solid. There are flashes of Liszt (see the climax of, say, Le Baiser de l’Enfant-Jésus) and of Mussorgsky: George told me that the two operas he wanted his students to study were Pelléas et Mélisande and Boris Gudunov. Yvonne Loriod was known as a Mozart player when Messiaen first met her; by fourteen, she performed all of Mozart’s piano concertos; even in her sixties she wistfully wished she was asked to perform them all again (she was his muse, and forever attached to his enormous piano writing; I don’t think it occurred to any promoter to ask her to play something else.) But I often think about that when I play Messiaen, about Loriod’s tremendous classical hinterland.

But there are two things that will always be a challenge when first playing Messiaen: the size and speed of his chords (those modes do become second nature, eventually, but only after several years); and his asymmetric rhythms. Messiaen was deeply immersed in Greek and Indian rhythmic patterns, right from the start, and it takes time to convey these with naturalness. They shouldn’t ever sound stuck or ‘difficult’. I got hold of his monograph Technique de mon language musicale while I was still a student – and he lays open his style and influences very transparently, with many examples. Highly recommended – you can practice your French too! (Although I think there may be an English translation online these days.)

Some people might mention physical and mental stamina in regard to performing Messiaen’s works (Turangalîla is 80 minutes, Vingt Regards is two and a quarter hours without a break; even Quatuor is fifty-five minutes. But I think this is part of a long tradition; I think of The Art of Fugue, Goldberg variations, Diabelli Variations. As well as Wagner and Bruckner.

What is the extent of his emotional/spiritual/expressive range?

I hope you won’t mind if I quote my opening liner notes on Vingt Regards here:

Vingt Regards is massive, almost unruly in its overflow of energy and colour, teeming with gorgeous sonorities and intellectually rigorous ideas. Each movement is quite literally a meditation on a theological aspect of his Roman Catholic beliefs, yet the contemplations are meticulously and dramatically paced: they can be serene, fierce, languid, rigidly doctrinal or even humorous. The nearest equivalent I can think of to the contradictory forces held within some movements is the work of the metaphysical poet John Donne, whose Holy Sonnets contain surprisingly forceful imagery -‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for,you/As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend’.

The other truly remarkable quality is Messiaen’s knowledge and love for Eastern music and philosophy. Like the American composer Lou Harrison, he challenges our Western notions of time and structure. The whole work of Vingt Regards may well represent the austere and magnificent edifice of a Gothic cathedral, but the detail and pacing of each movement owes much to Hindu rhythms and the sonority of the Balinese Gamelan.

….Every time I return to the score of Vingt Regards, I am amazed that a work so ambitious and diverse can be built upon unifying building blocks that are in themselves so simple and repetitive. In that sense there is much in common with Bach’s The Art of Fugue, which is equally intellectually rigorous, built on one unadorned fugue subject in D minor. The unifying key in Vingt Regards is F sharp major, heard in hushed tones at the opening, and thunderously at the end. F sharp major, both as a straight tonic chord and with its more luxuriant added sixth, stands almost as an icon throughout the work.

….. Certainly in these pieces we really see Messiaen’s view of God, his Son, the Virgin Mary, Angels and birds  – but we see far beyond the material world and begin to contemplate abstract ideas, as well as feel the passion of Messian’s beliefs, rooted in sensuality as well as theology. Sometimes ‘regard’ is translated as ‘adoration’, but even Messiaen added often quite impressionistic subtitles in an effort to explain the title; he sometimes expanded on the structure of the music and the implied iconography. There are many ways to appreciate Vingt Regards – as a technical achievement, an act of faith, an emotional rollercoaster. It is a tribute to the depth of this masterwork that its meanings are as infinite as all the global references Messiaen draws upon.

Messiaen’s music is quite troubling precisely because it isn’t binary; it holds Catholic dogma alongside wild rapture, and often the most lengthy pieces are built on simple ideas and repetitions. Some familiarity with poetry of the Book of Revelation is useful, and a willingness to live in the stratospheric, occasionally circular world of birds. There’s a handful of works that have definitely entered the mainstream – Vingt Regards, Quatuor, Turangalîla but I hope eventually others will be more frequently played too, like the ravishingly beautiful Couleurs de la Cité Céleste, the song cycle Harawi, the Stravinskian Oiseaux Exotiques, and Et Expecto. Also his most compressed, soulful and succinct birdsong writing, the very late Petites Esquisses, almost his last gift to his wife.

Gramophone Magazine Diary: Mexico, George Crumb, Nina Simone and Adrian Mitchell

To Mexico with Britten Sinfonia for a short tour – my first visit there. Last minute hiccups on the final master of Live in Buenos Aires – a previous master version seems to have got through under the wire – so I’m running through Terminal 5 at Heathrow trying to sort things out with my engineer and not set off the security alarms. The 11 hour flight is (comparatively) restful. We have one night in Mexico City before heading off early the next morning, so I and most of the orchestra head off to the Opera bar downtown – a fantastic old place with carved wooden booths and revolutionary bullet holes in the ceiling.

The next morning we travel 4 hours north through the mountains to reach Morelia, a jewel of a city with the most beautiful 18th century Spanish colonial architecture. We’re opening their music festival, considered to be the Salzburg Festival of Mexico – it’s a huge international programme. After a quick lunch I head off to the concert hall early – I’m directing a programme of Bach (two concertos), MacMillan (his dazzling 2nd piano concerto), some Dowland arrangements of my own, Gismonti and Stravinsky. The piano is in bits, and the (very good) piano tuner is on his hands and knees looking harassed. Is there another piano in Morelia? After a few false leads the answer is no, so we decide to quickly put the piano back together again, rehearse for three hours with the orchestra, and he’ll stay up all night.

By the next afternoon the piano is looking and sounding much better – not great, but OK. This opening night is a major cultural occasion: last night there were fireworks outside the cathedral, TV and radio are here, and I and the players are waiting patiently by the side of the stage while various politicians make short speeches. We’ve been told 15 minutes; 35 minutes later I’m slumped in the corner, violinists are improvising duets, others are lying on what was the TV station’s sofa backstage. Musicians are like racehorses, and if the race is this delayed we all start tearing the place up. Finally we’re off, and we have a lovely time: it’s not an obvious programme but the audience are really warm and receptive, leaping to their feet at the end of the MacMillan and giving us another ovation when we start playing Piazzolla encores. It’s a great start, and afterwards there’s a swanky reception in the town hall, clearly originally a 17th century palace. We are serenaded both by a Scottish bagpipes band (all Mexican) and a family of folk musicians. I have to emphasize not all our concerts are this glamorous.

I leave Morelia before nine the next day, but before we go I ask my driver to show me the carpet of flowers that’s traditionally created here every year by Indian women from the surrounding villages. They’ve stayed up all night and are gently making the finishing touches to a carpet that curls  through the street  for a third of a mile, made of rose petals, berries, leaves, and fruit, with images of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, the sun and the moon, local saints. It’s breathtaking and goes all the way up to a riotously decorated church, full of painted fruits, vines and vegetables. I’m so happy to be here.

Our next concert is in a completely different venue, the vast auditorium on the campus of Mexico City University. It’s got a glamorously resonant, sharp acoustic, rather like Birmingham Symphony Hall. Before the concert we wander up to the roof terrace and discover members of the Mexico City Orchestra having an impromptu salsa party. Aha! One of our second violinists is a demon salsa dancer and immediately joins in.  How can I resist? Tom the orchestral manager plucks us away 20 minutes before the concert begins. We’re playing slightly different repertoire here and again there’s a really warm reception from the audience. Back the hotel, this is the orchestra’s last night (I’m staying to do a solo recital) and Jackie Shave, the leader, decides she doesn’t want to stop playing. There’s a spontaneous play-through of Bartok’s first string quartet in one of the hotel’s conference rooms. I sit at the back and reflect on how brilliant, and dedicated, musicians are.

Before my final concert I decide to do some sightseeing. The Anthropological Museum is awe-inspiring, the Gallery of Contemporary Art cutting edge. But my heart is won by the much smaller Museum of Folk Art, in a refurbished old fire station; three floors of lovingly-curated ceramics and textiles, children’s toys and macabre, fantastical animals, Day of the Dead figures and Trees of Life. I admire how proud and passionate Mexicans are about their culture, and how the collection wittily mixes the domestic with the spookily surreal. Just like life.

I have one more date with Britten Sinfonia, in Madrid’s Auditorio Nationale. So I fly in from Mexico, and race along to the Prado. What a collection – Bosch, Botticelli, Vaslasquez, Zurburan, El Greco, Goya. I’m in heaven: it’s dark, menacing, powerful, like the best Schnittke score.

I arrive back in the UK and immediately go to Cambridge to play a recital of Bach and Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues. I’m either sleeping 11 hours a night or two. I drop in on James Mallinson and listen through to a recording I made a while ago of Messiaen’s song cycle Harawi with the Dutch soprano Charlotte Reidijk. It’s planned for a box set release of Messiaen (with Vingt Regards and Quatour  pour la Fin du Temps) around the time I play Turangalila performances with Gergiev and the LSO. We gossip about the recording industry, orchestras, the usual thing. It’s always very calming working with James; I’ve learnt such a lot about recording from him.

It’s one of those weeks. I’m playing two big Crumb pieces as part of the BBC Total Immersion Festival at the Barbican, and as I come off the stage after the first one I’m told he’s in the audience, try and remember to give him a bow. Crumb actually here!!!  A direct link back to Ives, Cage and all my American pioneer heroes. I hope he doesn’t think my plucking, scraping, whistling and singing is too awful. His music is marvellous, meticulous, spiritual and damn difficult. Afterwards I’m dazzled by his kind, laid-back West Virginian voice, the lightly gracious way he carries himself. I also admire his decision to be a recluse.

The next day I start to write the brochure notes for Bath Music Festival; this is my fifth programme. Polly (my producer), the marketing team and I have been discussing the design and layout for weeks, but now is the time to write it all up. I love doing this, but it’s a conundrum: Kathleen Ferrier celebration, 150 words? Hugely complicated collaboration between English National Ballet and jazz trumpeter Arve Henriksen, 100 words? The jazz programme, folk, contemporary, chamber music – all have to be written about with passion, enthusiasm and brevity. I take a phone call from Irvine Arditti, on a crackly line from Minneapolis, to finalize the quartet’s rather exciting programme of Birtwistle, Beethoven and Dusapin. (Make a mental note to give Harry B. a ring.) Break off to go to the 100 Club in Oxford to play in Limelight, a new venture to promote classical music in this historic rock n’roll venue. It’s absolutely rammed and I play Bach, Crumb and Piazzolla to a completely attentive audience. Only the girl serving at the bar recognizes my encore, though: ‘That’s my favourite piece of Nina Simone!’ she exclaims as she hands me a pint.

Last concert this week: tribute to the late, great Adrian Mitchell, subversively witty poet and political agitator, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. His wife Celia has asked me to play some Satie (Adrian wrote a terrific play about him) and I’m sharing the stage with fantastic poets – Carol Ann Duffy, Brian Patten, John Berger, Roger McGough, Jackie Kay and many others – all of whom read one of Adrian’s poems and one of their own, and tell lovely, funny stories about him. It’s the most moving, rich, and emotional occasion. I resolve to be more like a poet, and see the humour, fun and mystery in everything.

This is me going home now, to my piano waiting for me, up in a tower by the sea. On it is my battered, much-loved and much-marked score of Vingt Regards. I’ll make a coffee, turn to movement no 6, set the metronome slow, and sigh with pleasure. This is what I live for.

(November issue, 2012)

Chopin: The Complete Mazurkas - 'Canons buried in flowers'

Chopin’s fifty-seven mazurkas form one of the greatest collections of piano literature – some say the greatest. Soulful, witty, and often dramatic, they can be experienced in a multiplicity of ways: as a diary of Chopin’s life; as his laboratory for compositional ideas; as a testimony to Polish culture and his elegant improvisation. Most of all, Chopin’s mazurkas represent memory. Sealed into each are childhood ghosts and bittersweet love, conflict and resignation.

Mazurkas are immediately captivating, to every kind of pianist. Most are very short, yet the rich detail of the music is extraordinary: Chopin rarely repeats a rhythm or harmony the same way. He often taught these mazurkas to his pupils to make them think about phrasing and tone production at a sophisticated level, which they found very challenging. (I recommend a lovely book – Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger’s Chopin, Pianist and Teacher, As Seen by his Pupils – for eyewitness accounts.)  All contemporary listeners were impressed by Chopin’s poetic imagination, noting he had a prodigious technique but chose to deploy it carefully and intelligently; he was interested in the quality of sound, particularly soft timbres. In a typically amusing passage Berlioz wrote: ‘There are unbelievable details in his mazurkas; and he has found how to render them doubly interesting by playing them with the utmost degree of softness, piano in the extreme, the hammers merely brushing the strings; so much so that one is tempted to go close to the instrument and put one’s ear to it, as if to a concert of sylphs or elves.’

There’s also a great deal of passion in the mazurkas; some of them are as demanding, physically and intellectually, as Chopin’s longer ballades or scherzos. Robert Schumann immediately grasped the embedded nationalism, characterising the Polish dance rhythms, modes and bagpipes as a rebuke to Russia: ‘If the mighty autocrat of the north knew what a dangerous enemy threatened him in the simple tunes of Chopin’s mazurkas,’ he wrote, ‘he would forbid this music. Chopin’s works are canons buried in flowers.’ And pianists have been drawn inexorably to their ambiguity. One of the joys of studying this music is to have an excuse to lose oneself in great interpreters: Horowitz, Rosenthal, Friedman, Michelangeli, Argerich, Ferenczy and many others have delivered wondrous readings of these masterpieces. But for many, Rubinstein – who made the first ever complete mazurkas recording at Abbey Road London in 1938 – still stands alone. Listening to his deeply empathetic, impetuous playing is compelling: physical warmth collides with reflection and intimacy. It was this recording which established the mazurkas as an urgent body of work.

Chopin worked simultaneously with French, German and English publishers, so there are several lifetimes of work ahead to disentangle scholarship issues. Already there are six more mazurkas made available since Rubinstein’s first recording; now we’re all used to editions with posthumously published pieces at the back of the score. I’ve taken the simple decision to play them in order of composition, and to follow the intense unfolding of a composer returning to the same place again and again: from Chopin’s first mazurka to his last.

The Earliest Mazurkas (1820-1829)
KK IVa No.7 in D major ‘Mazurek’
KK IIa No.2 in G major ‘Prague’
KK IIa No.3 in B flat major
Op. 68 No.2 in A minor: Lento
Op. 68 No.1 in C major: Vivace
Op. 68 No.3 in F major: Allegro ma non troppo

A short curtain raiser of Chopin’s earliest mazurkas, written between the ages of ten (his first editor’s claim) and nineteen. They are delicious – cheeky and light – but also contain the building blocks of his mature work: chromaticism, a gift for melody, subtle shading, syncopation. Op.68 No.2 gives a hint of sultry melancholy, while the mysterious middle section of Op.68 No.3 lays out a Bartókian interest in folk music. Curiously this is the only instance of a possible match with a known folk song, Oj Magdalino.

Four Mazurkas Op. 6 (1830)
No.1 in F sharp minor
No.2 in C sharp minor
No.3 in E major: Vivace
No.4 in E flat minor: Presto ma non troppo

This first published set already speaks in a psychological, searching way, with a conversational, intimate voice. The lovely accents and open fifth harmonies opening No.3 are reminiscent of Bartók’s Rumanian dances, while No.4 (the only mazurka in E flat minor) is a wonderfully compressed, knotty little piece, a 24-bar labyrinth. Chopin returns to ‘circular’ composition several times in the mazurkas.

Five Mazurkas Op 7 (1830-31)
No.1 in B flat major: Vivace
No.2 in A minor: Vivo ma non troppo
No.3 in F minor
No.4 in A flat major: Presto ma non troppo
No.5 in C major: Vivo

Op.7 opens with one of the best known of all the mazurkas, with tipsy rhythms and downward leaps of 9ths and 7ths. Note the enigmatic folk-fiddle tune over a drone bass in the middle. (This mazurka was so popular Chopin encored it twice at a concert in Glasgow in 1848, playing it completely differently the second time.)

The second mazurka in A minor – like Op.68 No.2, achingly melancholic – is a favourite amongst budding pianists; here I include two variants in bars 23 and 27, Chopin’s improvisations quickly scribbled down by a student. Just as Chopin likes to write certain material in A minor, his character of C major in No.5 is often rustic, and slightly giddy. It doesn’t actually have an ending, but loops round and round, senza fine.

KKIV No.1 in B flat major (1832)
Four Mazurkas Op 17 (1832-33)
No.1 in B flat major: Vivo e risoluto
No.2 in E minor: Lento ma non troppo
No.3 in A flat major: Legato assai
No.4 in A minor: Lento ma non troppo

The short, posthumous mazurka in B flat major which precedes the next set was published in 1909. It could almost be a sketch for the far more suave Op.17 No.1, with its elegant nonchalance and corps de ballet middle section. Chopin’s mazurka in E minor (No.2) is a regretful Parisian chanson; this was one of the twelve mazurkas the opera singer Pauline Viardot arranged for voice and guitar, with the composer’s collaboration. The A flat mazurka reveals a composer who loves to improvise on his material, with beautifully Schubertian, enharmonic transitions. Mazurkas in this key often elicit a dream-like fluidity from Chopin, the repetition digging deep into memory.

When Horowitz returned to London in 1982, I slept outside the Royal Festival Hall to be sure of getting a ticket. Of all the pieces he played at his recital, the miraculous Op.17 No.4 is the most vivid memory. Chopin’s pupils nicknamed this mazurka das Trauergesicht – ‘the mourner’s face’ – and its porous, unresolved quality has inspired many later composers.

KKIVb No.3 in C major (1833)
KKIVb No.4 in A flat major ‘Szymanowska’ (1834)

These two mazurkas (not published until 1930) present two sharply contrasting styles: robustly merry and wistfully delicate, floating away on the breeze.

Four Mazurkas Op. 24 (1834-35)
No.1 in G minor: Lento
No.2 in C major: Allegro non troppo
No.3 in A flat major: Moderato
No.4 in B flat minor: Moderato

No.1 in G minor displays Cossack swagger. The highly original C major mazurka is a gossamer piece, with the fragment of a Lydian melody that pulls us back to Polish folk music. The relaxed, improvisatory feel of No.3 leads into the darker ambiguity of the fourth in B flat minor, an ambitious, almost symphonic work: the longest mazurka so far. No student was ever able to satisfy Chopin playing the soft unisons in the middle of this mazurka; they could never play delicately enough for him. ‘One was barely allowed to breathe over the keyboard, let alone touch it!’, one said. What a bleak voice at the end; similar to the ending of Op.30 No.4, and the recitative of Op.67 No.2.

Op.67 No.1 in G major: Vivace (1835)
Op.67 No.3 in C major: Allegretto  (1835)

Both written in 1835, but published posthumously. The first paints a village fair, with bagpipe fifths and stomping thirds; the C major mazurka is a reticent waltz.

Four Mazurkas, Op 30 (1836-37)
No.1 in C minor: Allegretto non tanto
No.2 in B minor: Vivace
No.3 in D flat major: Allegro non troppo
No.4 in C sharp minor: Allegretto

Conversational, full of pathos, beautifully brief: another chanson opens this set. No.2 in B minor is a clever, cunning piece. It has a terrific chromatic sequence, as well as a trio tune that repeats the same two-bar phrase eight times, over different harmonies.

The third in D flat is a big-boned, generous mazurka – almost a polonaise – marked risoluto and con anima, for Chopin meaning ‘with heart’. The fourth is one of Chopin’s supreme works in the form, and recorded by many great pianists. There are many moods here – impressionistic, nervy, yearning, and passionate – and the work is complex, dark: difficult to capture. Music analysts from Schumann onwards have written about the rules-shattering seventh chords – a sequence where the music literally seems to dissolve – towards the end. The final stark voice could have been written by Janáček.

Four Mazurkas Op.33 (1837-8)
No.1 in G sharp minor: Mesto
No.2 in D major: Vivace
No.3 in C major: Semplice
No.4 in B minor

‘Chopin’s forms seem to grow ever brighter and lighter’, wrote Schumann of the Op. 33 set. That’s certainly true of the gorgeous peasant dance of No.2 – a depiction of the tavern, Chopin told his pupils – and the delicate beauty of No.3 (his pupil Lenz called this an epitaph of the mazurka, ‘the weary flight of an eagle.’) Chopin was furious with Meyerbeer, when he remarked Chopin stretched his rubato in this so much that it sounded in 4/4, rather than 3/4.

The set opens with a hint of tragedy in G sharp minor, and closes with one of the longest mazurkas, in B minor. Chopin taught this highly developed piece as if it were a ballade; at the end a soft bell tolls, and the sudden arrival of heavy chords sweeps away the cohort of ghosts, he would say.

Four Mazurkas Op.41 (1838-9)
No.1 in E minor: Andantino
No.2 in B major: Animato
No.3 in A flat major: Allegretto
No.4 in C sharp minor: Maestoso

One of the solemn funeral marches that seem to crop up in the mazurkas – always in A minor – opens the set powerfully here. The mood is lightened by an ebullient, virile scherzo in B major, and a quirky, asymmetrical waltz in A flat which seems to wander off down the road, like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. The most famous Op.41 mazurka is a slow burn, of maestoso dance and revolutionary fervor. It ends with a call to arms (like another C sharp minor mazurka, Op.50 No.3) – Schumann’s canons buried in flowers.

KK IIb No.4 in A minor: Allegretto ‘Notre Temps’ (1839)
KK IIb No.5 in A minor ‘À son ami Emile Galliard’ (1841)

Two more posthumous mazurkas. The first is another funeral march, resembling late Schubert, with an operatic chorus in the middle section. ‘À son ami Emile Galliard’ is terrifyingly passionate – angry, even – with (unusually) an octave passage evoking Chopin’s great supporter, Franz Liszt.

Close friends, but with entirely different temperaments, Chopin confided to Liszt: ‘I’m not suited for concert giving. I feel timid in presence of the public; their breath stifles me; their curious gaze paralyses me.’ Paris critics loved comparing the two composer pianists. Balzac: ‘You should judge Liszt only once you have had the opportunity to hear Chopin. The Hungarian is a demon; the Pole is an angel.’ Lutèce: ‘Besides Liszt, all other pianists are eclipsed, with a single exception: Chopin, the Raphael of the piano.’

Three Mazurkas Op.50 (1841-42)
No.1 in G major: Vivace
No.2 in A flat major: Allegretto
No.3 in C sharp minor: Moderato

The mazurkas written in the final years of Chopin’s life become complex. The first two of this set are miniature sonata forms, although the material is clearly intended to be attractively light. Not so the remarkable C sharp minor mazurka, which weaves in Bach-like counterpoint and argument. The coda is one of Chopin’s most remarkable harmonic sequences, with a torrent of audacious chromaticism and insistent transformation, before the final hammer blows.

Three Mazurkas Op.56 (1843)
No.1 in B major: Allegro non tanto
No.2 in C major: Vivace
No.3 in C minor: Moderato

The first of these three mazurkas begins in a minor key: a beautifully ambiguous opening, before finding its way to the home key of B major. Containing two lighter, scherzo-like episodes, there are linking sequences that sound surprisingly contemporary, before an extended, relaxed coda in right-hand sixths. The middle mazurka returns to the awkwardness of C major. Chopin disliked this key, complaining that it made a pianist’s hand fall unnaturally on the piano keys; the first scales and exercises he taught to his pupils were always in B major, far more elegant and relaxed. Here C major produces an earthy, modal peasant dance, with stamps and kicks.

Nothing could contrast more with the C minor mazurka, perhaps Chopin’s most philosophical. Questioning repetitions lead to a long bridge section, finally reaching a hymn-like second subject and development. This mazurka has the depth and range of a sonata movement; its closing passage is remarkable for the inner processes at work, both reflective and haunted.

Three Mazurkas Op.59 (1845)
No.1 in A minor: Moderato
No.2 in A flat major: Allegretto
No.3 in F sharp minor: Vivace

The opening mazurka in this set is as elusive as Chopin’s Ballade no.4. It doesn’t develop so much as unfold; the composer’s harmonic handling – particularly a ‘false return’ in the very distant key of G sharp minor which effortlessly melts back into A minor – is miraculous. Berlioz wrote: ‘virtually nobody but Chopin himself can play his music and give it this unusual turn, this sense of the unexpected…his interpretation is shot through with a thousand nuances of movement, which he alone holds the secret.’

And then he gives us a warm music-hall song, before returning to the stylish power of F sharp minor, with insouciant triplets and snaps.

Three Mazurkas Op.63 (1846)
No.1 in B major: Vivace
No.2 in F minor: Lento
No.3 in C sharp minor: Allegretto

Chopin returns to shorter, simpler forms that are warm (B major) then frozen (F minor). The third mazurka is very different from the grand C sharp minor mazurkas that have gone before. This is klezmer music from Eastern Europe: ironic and wonderfully cultured, with a dash of counterpoint at the end.

The Final Mazurkas
Op.67 No.4 in A minor: Allegretto (1846)
Op.67 No.2 in G minor: Cantabile (1846)
Op.68 No.4 in F minor: Andantino (1849)

The last three mazurkas reveal Chopin at his most lean. No drama, but the poet speaks simply and directly; the harmonies have a devastating clarity.

The final brief mazurka in F minor was traditionally known as the last piece Chopin ever wrote. It was left as a sketch, assembled by his friend, the cellist Auguste Franchomme, and subsequently edited by Julian Fontana. There is circularity and openness in the form; melodic ambiguity; and compressed, Tristan-like chromaticism. In its shadows, it sums up Chopin’s long journey: as a composer of extraordinary insight, his mazurkas a witness to human vulnerability and longing.

© Joanna MacGregor


The Guardian: 'Quavers at the speed of light'

Harrison Birtwistle's music is devilishly difficult to play and has floored conductors and musicians alike but, says Joanna MacGregor, even his most fearful pieces are meant to be fun

This year is Harrison Birtwistle's 75th birthday. It seemed a good idea - well, absolutely vital - for us at the Bath International Music Festival to mark the occasion with some kind of celebration. But what started out as one concert quickly became several performances of different shapes and sizes, not all of them conventional. We have a theatre group retelling classic myths for children, an installation of electronic music in the ghostly workshops of the Museum of Bath at Work, an open-air marching band, big percussion pieces and intimate chamber works. All this climaxes in a big, ritualistic extravaganza of choral and brass music at Bath Abbey, with 70 performers.

One formal type of concert simply wasn't enough to do justice to the complexity and magnitude of Harry's output and personality. I wanted to make some connections between his music and some of Harry's favourite Tudor and Elizabethan composers, to get children involved, and invite local students to share the stage with professionals. Birtwistle's music is often considered so complex that only a certain kind of "specialist" musician can play it, but I want to open the door marked "Danger - New Music" for young people early on.

It's easy to label Birtwistle a "hard" composer. Some readers might remember switching on the Last Night of the Proms a few years ago for a comforting singalong only to be confronted by Panic, a sensational piece for sax, percussion and orchestra, which apparently traumatised the shires for several weeks afterwards. I remember listening to Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs testily demanding to know exactly who he was writing for. But composers don't get up in the morning wondering who can they upset today - the good ones don't, anyway. They write what they hear, and express what needs to be expressed. Like sculptors, they patiently hew and shape their music, often following a private narrative arc from piece to piece. They write alone, slowly and diligently. Some of them, like Harry, find their voice very early on and examine their personal mythologies carefully with each new work.

The problem with "hard" classical music is that the audiences can be self-selecting, aided and abetted by some critics who imply you need a PhD before you'll be sold a ticket. But you don't need to control the music or fight it. If you let it happen, you'll be surprised at how beautiful, deep and lyrical even the most challenging contemporary scores can be. Sure, Birtwistle's written some very loud, dissonant music (let's not panic about Panic again); but I find it exhilarating, rather than threatening, and it's never without some kind of emotional punch. The melodic lines may be angular or stratospheric, but they're unmistakably melodies.

The first time I worked with Harry was on his huge piano concerto Antiphonies, in 1992; I was asked to take over an extraordinarily complex score at the last minute and flown out to Paris to meet the conductor, Pierre Boulez, in IRCAM, his underground labyrinth of electronic studios. Boulez thought the piece very tough and asked me to work through the entire score with him at sight. (This, in case you're wondering, is the stuff of musicians' nightmares: trying to sightread Birtwistle in front of Boulez.) The orchestration (for huge forces, including a massive battery of percussion) was so dense you could've walked into it like an Anish Kapoor installation. I loved the music, the depth and fierceness of it; the way it went absolutely against the idea of a conventional piano concerto, and the way we all had to cling on for dear life, even in Boulez's supremely capable hands. Those first three performances with the Philharmonia, in Paris, Antwerp and London, were formidably powerful - even if the critics weren't crazy about it - and 18 months later we recorded it in Amsterdam, with a somewhat less friendly Dutch Radio Orchestra. There was much complaining, particularly from the string section. At the end of tense recording days, I remember weaving in between trams with Birtwistle, whipped by below-freezing winds, and diving into snug bars very late. (The recording turned out very well, despite the high-noon atmosphere.)

Complex modern music always has antecedents. I've never met a composer who doesn't have a strong affinity with the past; often they're reworking, reimagining or just plain arguing with what's come before. You can find out a lot from the company a composer keeps, and there's a nice line to be traced from the early English composers John Dunstable and John Dowland to Birtwistle: it's a shared quality of mystery and melancholy, of shadows and pauses and memory. The first piece I remember hearing of Birtwistle's and falling in love with, was Meridian, a love song scored for mezzo-soprano, chorus and ensemble. It entwines the glorious poetry of the Elizabethan lyricist Thomas Wyatt with Christopher Logue. I can remember with absolute clarity how I felt at this performance, more than 30 years ago: I was lifted up and transported, by this rapturous music, to a place where the deep past and present meet. This quality in Birtwistle's music is a gift for programming: there's nothing more satisfying than forging links between ancient and modern worlds, so the listener can engage with contemporary music on two levels. Birtwistle revisits rituals, myths and stories over and over again, and there's a sense that his music is one long processional, emerging from a distant past, circling slowly round, and back again.

Finally, remember all composers are human beings. They have family lives, friends, gardens, hobbies, like you and me. Because he's known for long, involved scores, it comes as a surprise that over the years Harry has written several brief, intimate piano pieces, which I'm getting some young students from Bath Spa University to play for him (he will be attending all the concerts). All have lovely dedications to newborn grandchildren or close friends; they're usually brief lullabies, or tangos, or humorous little exercises in rhythm with a metronome. And even his most fearful music is intended to be playful.

Some years after Antiphonies, I premiered a huge cycle called Harrison's Clocks, five pieces based on John Harrison's 18th-century maritime clocks. Boy, they were hard - millions of notes, with fantastically complicated rhythms travelling at the speed of light. Many other pianists at the time quaked, turned pale and shook their heads. But everything moves on - that was more than 10 years ago, and what's considered unplayable gradually becomes - well, not exactly easy, but possible. Harry told me that recently teenage pupils at the Purcell School had split the piece up, taken a movement each, and played them to him. On the phone the other day, sorting out some details for our Bath concerts, I mentioned to Harry I was spending the rest of the evening in the company of these fiendish Clocks. I must've sounded glum. "But they're not hard!" he exclaimed in his soft Lancashire burr, trying to cheer me up. "They're fun." And I thought, yes, he's right. Just because they're complicated doesn't mean they're not fun.


When Dmitri met Johann: Limelight Magazine, Australia


Even when I was a little girl, Bach was an essential composer for me. Why? Well, I thought he was jazzy and incredibly cool. His music always seemed to dance and sparkle, with wit and sharpness. His voice told a story, and it had immediacy – even while I attempted to play his fugues and pick through the counterpoint.

As an adult musician, I still turn to Bach almost every day. His music is clarity itself, yet it provokes all kinds of problems to be solved, technical and psychological. There seems to be almost no extraneous information on the page – tempi, touch and articulation – and yet there’s an enormous amount to uncover, in terms of stylistic choices. Ornamentation, colouring, to pedal or not pedal: all the things pianists mull over, worry about, experiment with and ultimately change over a period of years (compare Schiff’s early recordings of Bach with his more recent ones). So why intertwine him with Shostakovich?

There’s a fairly swift answer to this – I was asked a few years ago to broadcast a live recital of Bach and Shostakovich preludes and fugues on the BBC, and I think they were expecting me to play two separate ‘showcases’ of each composer with some clear blue water (and 200 years) in between. But I thought it might be more challenging to weave a path from one to the other, as an unbroken arc. How would it feel to follow one famous Bach work with Shostakovich’s reply? Which composer would ultimately feel more contemporary, or mysterious, or shocking? Bach’s preludes and fugues are famously diverse. They can be springy and light, serious and spikey; they can be tragic, mystical, or humorous. They are (short) marvels of compositional elegance and profundity. Although Shostakovich’s homages are brilliantly engineered, can he really compete with the Godfather of classical music?

The story of how Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues came to be written is a Cold War tale. Sent against his will to Leipzig, as a cultural ambassador in 1950 (for a festival marking the bicentenary of Bach’s death) he found himself morosely sitting on the jury of the first international Bach Competition. (No doubt he visited Bach’s grave, newly laid at the Thomaskirche.) Impressed by a hitherto unknown Russian pianist, Tatiana Nikolayeva, who came prepared to play all 48 preludes and fugues, he returned to Moscow and composed 24 of his own, in five months. This monumental project was given a premiere, and subsequent majestic performances, by Nikolayeva. Shostakovich hadn’t studied Bach, or earlier music, as a student at Petrograd Conservatory; both his teacher Glazunov and the conservatory’s founder Rimsky-Korsakov thought Bach was boring, and music started with Haydn and Mozart. The Leipzig trip, and the revelation of Nikolayeva’s playing, produced an instantaneous reaction in him. Some of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues are like lightening.

The choices that I made in this sequence were key-based and narratively driven (I decided to stick to Bach’s Volume I). I wanted to open with the most famous, translucent work Bach ever wrote, the C major prelude, and allow Shostakovich’s reply – a meltingly beautiful, C major sarabande. Then the jazz kicks in, in Bach’s C minor work, with a robust and bracing reply from Shostakovich in the related key of E flat major. And so the composers tail one another, conversing in connected keys, but with astonishingly different tonal palettes, philosophies and textures. Each composer is tough – if they write melancholic music it’s pure melancholy; if it’s effervescent, it scorches the score like fireworks. Bach plumbs the depths with universality. Shostakovich can write music laced with sarcasm, which then transforms into 20th century existentialism and futility. Both can be extremely funny.

Shortly after playing in Australia I’ll be returning to London to speak at a Neuroscience conference about the effects of music. I know nothing at all about neuroscience other than performing, writing or listening to counterpoint does something very positive to your brain. Multiple voices talk, argue, explicate and then resolve. (There must have been a good reason Brahms wrote a fugue before breakfast every day). It’s an academic technique and a compositional tool – but what both Bach and Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues really do is speak directly to their listeners. Their music is contemporary, urgent and powerful.

March 26th 2014