Harrison: Piano Concerto

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Sound Circus
WORKS: Piano Concerto
PERFORMER: Joanna MacGregor (piano); Sydney SO/Sian Edwards
CATALOGUE NO: SC 005 (available only from www.soundcircus.com or tel 0118 931 2580)
Two new Lou Harrison discs in one month (see Chamber for Rhymes with Silver) will both please fans of his good-natured, open-hearted music and (hopefully) encourage others to explore it. Joanna MacGregor’s new recording of the Piano Concerto is certainly something to treasure. Written for Keith Jarrett, who’s also the soloist on the only other recording of the work (New World), the epic Concerto effortlessly manages to combine Brahmsian expansiveness with gamelan pastiche and classic prairie Americana to brilliant and witty effect. MacGregor gives a significantly faster performance than Jarrett, with the emphasis on clarity and warmth: where Jarrett is mechanical in the first movement’s intricate gamelan textures, MacGregor makes them sing; where Jarrett labours over the syncopated clusters in the boisterous second-movement ‘Stampede’, in MacGregor’s hands they fly by in a whirl of cross-rhythms. Her understanding of the music’s ebb and flow is exemplary, from the volatile moods of the first movement to the intense introspection of the third, beautifully rendered in a performance where each chord is given a different weight and direction. The playing of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is somewhat colder than Jarrett’s New Japan Philharmonic, although it excels in articulation and clarity. Sound is warm and generous, strong on clarity again, and with the soloist slightly forward. It’s a shame, however, that the disc is so short: for a relatively little-known composer, there are numerous pieces – not least the wild and wacky Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan – which would have complemented the Piano Concerto perfectly. David Kettle