mon 22/04/2024

Joanna MacGregor, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | reviews, news & interviews

Joanna MacGregor, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Joanna MacGregor, Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Pianist revisits epic composed by Messaien for his wife-to-be

Breathtaking delicacy, visceral ferocity: Joanna MacGregor

Joanna MacGregor walks on stage purposefully, clutching a manuscript of paving-slab dimensions, promptly sits down and starts to play, smiling. The opening measures of Messiaen’s Regard du Père steal in gently, and for the next 120 minutes we are transfixed. Until this evening, listening to Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus on disc has always been an unappealing prospect - something I’ve done more in duty than pleasure.

Hearing it live for the first time is a revelation.

Composed during the liberation of Paris in 1944 for Yvonne Loriod (soon to be the composer’s wife), the work has 20 movements. As MacGregor’s excellent and accessible programme notes advise, “each movement is a meditation on a theological aspect of Messiaen’s Catholic beliefs.” At the same time, it is “massive, almost unruly in its overflow of energy and colour, teeming with gorgeous sonorities and intellectually rigorous ideas”. The musical style is typically eclectic - alternately sensuous and harsh, and making reference to birdsong, Balinese gamelan and Indian music. You are bludgeoned by passages of terrifying power and ferocity and then caressed by jazzy, tender chord progressions which Gershwin would have admired.

The total effect can be disconcerting, but as a result this music teems with vitality and warmth; even during the more apocalyptic moments you know that Messiaen takes delight in the vivacity of his gift for communication. Joanna MacGregor has long been an advocate of Vingt regards, having recorded it in the mid-1990s. Last night, playing the cycle straight through without a break, she displayed breathtaking delicacy in the more intimate sections, the aggressive passages roared with  a seismic, visceral ferocity, and in the extrovert sixth and 10th sections we shared her joy in the music’s jazziness, marvelling at the preternatural accuracy of the playing.

Le Baiser de l’enfant Jésus in MacGregor’s hands was hugely touching whilst always avoiding kitsch. I particularly loved the fluttering of angels’ wings in the Regard des anges, and the frequent bursts of birdsong. As the closing Regard de l’église d’amour slowly wound down, Messiaen’s “Theme of God” rang out in clangorous triumph. To cheers, MacGregor bowed onstage, holding up her copy of the music. An inspirational, intense and deeply moving performance.

Find out more about Joanna MacGregor's Sound Circus concert series

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Thank you for this illuminating review. It has made me want to try Messaien's Vingt Regards sur L'l'Enfant Jesus again. I heard it on the radio for the first time about 6 months ago and surprised myself by getting to the end. This review has sharpened my resolve to listen hard again when I shall I have a copy of Rickson's useful review by my side.

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