Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Piano Sonata No. 1 (1909-1916) [35:01]
Samuel BARBER (1940-1981)
Piano Sonata (1949) [21:43]
Excursions (1944)[11:20]
Bela BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm (1926-1939) [9:09]
Out of Doors (1926) [15:23]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Etudes (1915) (selection) [21:38]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911) [16:55]
Alborada del gracioso (1904) [6:31]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899)[6:12]
Joanna MacGregor (piano)
rec. 1990 and 1993 Snape Maltings, Suffolk
WARNER CLASSICS SOUND CIRCUS 2 CD 2564 67203-7 [143:50]

These recordings are reissues of performances which originally appeared on the Collins Classics label. They now appear on MacGregor's own label, Sound Circus.

Ives will always divide opinion as a composer. Even listeners who are kindly disposed to his unique sound-world find some of his pieces utterly confused and incoherent, his humour both crude and heavy-handed. Yet his orchestral masterpiece “The Unanswered Question” is, without a doubt, both original and emotive, proving that Ives did have a vein of poetry running through his remarkable output. His Piano Sonata No. 1 contains many of his distinctive hallmarks, such as the integration of well known hymns (“What a Friend we have in Jesus”) and popular songs. Joanna MacGregor responds well to Ives's quirky and vibrant idiom. Her first movement is marvellously played, particularly the glorious secondary idea (beginning at 1:35). She even manages to invest one section (beginning at 5:35) with a dreamy poetic vagueness that sounds remarkably like William Baines! The inner movements are especially compelling, with Ives's explosive outbursts well captured by the engineers. MacGregor manages to make the slightly long-winded finale a suitable culmination for the entire work. This is a performance of genuine stature.

The much better known Barber Sonata has significant competition in quite a crowded field, most notably Vladimir Horowitz's 1950 account on RCA and Daniel Pollack's 1995 Naxos reading. Here the timings are interesting. MacGregor takes an extremely expansive view, making her overall duration for the sonata three minutes longer than Horowitz and three and a half minutes longer than Pollack. This is a considerable amount of extra time in a work that ends to last about eighteen and a half minutes on average. Her approach is unusually soft-grained, especially in the first movement, and some will find that this performance misses the sheer drama and intensity that we hear in the above-mentioned rival accounts. The slow movement is riveting in Horowitz's version, yet here MacGregor seems to lose her way. Her fugal finale begins very promisingly, with the different strands brought out clearly, but the cataclysmic last minute of the piece (where the stretto begins at 3:49) just doesn't make the hairs stand on the back of the neck as it does in either the RCA or Naxos performances. Horowitz and Pollack both bring the necessary degree of temperament to this iconic work, although it must be pointed out that neither of those renditions are as well recorded as Joanna MacGregor.

In Barber's attractive “Excursions” of 1944, MacGregor gives an extremely satisfying account. Her speeds are very well chosen, meaning that this performance shaves three minutes off Pollack's rather sluggish overall timing for the piece. She scores over her rival in the bluesy second movement by keeping the music moving, when it can, in another performer's hands, seem merely self-indulgent. Most importantly, MacGregor invests this music with genuine warmth, especially in the delightful Allegretto third movement, and her finale is as fine as any performance I have heard.

The first disc in the set was recorded in the Concert Hall at Snape Maltings in 1990. The sound is of excellent quality, rich yet clear.

Bartók's Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm form part of his famous “Microkosmos”. Joanna MacGregor gives sparkling and clean cut readings of each of these distinctive miniatures, investing them with charm as well as rhythmic energy. The recording is just right for this music. The Naxos series of Bartók piano music suffered from being rather dry in its recorded sound. The abrasive “Out of Doors” suite of five piano pieces has plenty of energy and is marvellously played here. The nocturnal fourth movement comes off especially well, with MacGregor successfully sustaining a feeling of rapt contemplation throughout. Listening to this intense reading, one can hear how Bartók inspired some of the darker moments in Kenneth Leighton's piano works, such as the third movement of the Englishman's Six Studies (Study-Variations) Op. 56.

For some reason, Debussy's late Etudes are not as well known as his Preludes. Perhaps their elusiveness of harmony and continuity have proved too much of a challenge to interpreters. MacGregor chooses six of these rewarding pieces and rearranges them in an order that makes satisfying musical sense. The first Prelude is delicately and wittily despatched here, reminding us how Debussy never loses his ability to charm the listener, even when he is at his most original. No. 7 shows off her sparkling articulation to great advantage and No. 11 reveals the more sensual side of her playing. All these Etudes are given thoroughly committed performances. For those listeners who are looking for the complete set, however, Mitsuko Uchida (on Philips) can be strongly recommended.

Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales receive a subtle and highly persuasive rendition. Perhaps the opening movement could be played with more gusto, but this is a minor reservation. The underlying poignancy of the slower numbers is certainly very well brought out. Alborada del Gracioso is given an attractive, sharply delineated performance, lacking just the last ounce of sparkle and virtuosity. The famous Pavane is played very movingly.

This second disc was recorded in the Maltings in 1993. The sound is as good as the first disc. The booklet notes (by MacGregor herself) are intelligent and informative.

This is an enjoyable and stimulating issue overall, despite my reservations about the Barber Sonata.

David Jennings

A stimulating overview of early twentieth century piano music, nicely recorded.