I don't know whether to applaud Joanna MacGregor or throw up my hands in horror. She is a superlatively talented musician but she is also a bit quirky for the staid classical music world where she generally resides, and this CD confirms both those assessments. This disc was recorded live at a concert in Buenos Aires in 2007 where she toured with the Britten Sinfonia, a group with whom she has been intimately associated. MacGregor figures in all the tracks here except for the Stravinsky Concerto in D Major -- given a rather rough and ready performance -- and the Golijov piece, both of which are for string orchestra alone.
MacGregor is both the pianist and conductor in the Bach D Minor Concerto, BWV 1052, in a performance that makes Glenn Gould's performance with Leonard Bernstein sound like it was recorded in slow motion. This is without question the fastest Concerto in D Minor I've ever heard. Exciting, yes, satisfying, well not so much. First of all, the piano is recorded WAY too prominently; there are actually moments when one cannot hear the orchestra at all. Further, the recording level is extraordinarily high. As the Concerto is the first track on the CD, when the disc started playing at my usual volume setting I had to leap out of my chair to turn the darn thing down. I wound up decreasing volume by ten whole points on my volume control. Even then the sound is raucous and somehow grating. But, as I said, this is an exciting performance with so much animal energy it's amazingly alive.
But then things begin to get weird. MacGregor has arranged three pieces (Forlorn Hope Fancy; Mr Dowland's Midnight; & Can She Excuse) by the 16th-century English composer John Dowland for piano and low strings (pizzicato double basses and bowed violas, to be precise) whose entrances are mysterious and jazzy at the same time. In the words of MacGregor, it's 'dreamy, melancholy and bluesy in a new way.' That it certainly is. I found these pieces to be utterly charming.
Then come two pieces by the Brazilian Egberto Gismonti. 'Forrobodó' (a Brazilian term for a wild party) is folk-based and almost nightmarish in its intensity. 'Frevo' (a term for a popular Brazilian dance) is a fast, 2/4 dance that sounds like Rio's carnival has come to town. Both pieces were arranged by MacGregor and are accompanied by the string orchestra.
Argentine composer Oswaldo Golijov is hot these days and his 'Last Round' is one of his better-known pieces. It is a kind of tango originally for string quartet and bass but here in a version for string orchestra (without MacGregor's piano). It's a dreamlike bandoneon sound. Golijov wrote it in homage to the great tango mastor and bandoneonist, Astor Piazzolla, on learning of his death. Fittingly, then, the last two tracks are arrangements of two of Piazzolla's best-known pieces. 'Milonga del ángel' is for piano, bass and solo violin, and 'Libertango' for piano solo. The audience on this live recording explodes in applause.