Bach/Nancarrow: Die Kunst der Fuge; Three Canons for Ursula; Studies for Player Piano No. 3c, 6 & 11

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COMPOSERS: Bach/Nancarrow
LABELS: Collins
WORKS: Die Kunst der Fuge; Three Canons for Ursula; Studies for Player Piano No. 3c, 6 & 11
PERFORMER: Joanna MacGregor (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 70432 DDD
In a typically bold and thoughtful programme, Joanna MacGregor brings together Bach’s Art of Fugue and works by the contemporary American Conlon Nancarrow. The juxtaposition of Baroque formalism and pieces written in a jazz idiom is by no means novel, but it can be mutually enlightening, and Bach and Nancarrow make fitting bedfellows, as they share an uncompromising obsession with counterpoint. Moreover, by seeing The Art of Fugue as part of a living tradition, MacGregor sidesteps the dogmatisms of the debate on performance (she is refreshingly pluralistic in concluding that the work can be communicated ‘through widely different timbres and textures’). Playing on a modern Steinway, she brings out the wit and humanity in what can seem a forbidding project.

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The Art of Fugue is notoriously difficult, but some of Nancarrow’s pieces were thought to be unplayable. ‘Canon B’, for example, demands that its four voices run at four different tempi, at ratios of 6:9:10:15. Elsewhere, Nancarrow exploited the player piano, with its piano rolls, and here MacGregor is helped by computer technology to produce a multi-layered and complex sound-world which, despite its organisational rigidities, achieves a jazz-like freedom. William Humphreys-Jones