A good looker

CLASSICAL MUSIC: Joanna MacGregor; Barbican
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The Independent Culture
Messiaen's Vingt Regards sur I'Enfant-Jesus begin like the soft beating of the earth, with a theme of five chords in the extravagantly black-note key of F sharp major, echoing up the keyboard so quietly and slowly, it seems only a preparation. More than two hours later, the final piece culminates with the same theme, as loud as possible, its chords multiplied by repetitions, punctuated by angling bell effects in the extreme treble and drum-like blows in the bass. Between the two pieces, listening to the cycle is less like a journey than reading the scenes of a frieze, in the sense that the order doesn't seem unalterable. But for all that, on Sunday afternoon, Joanna MacGregor took us through without an interval, and made the experience overwhelming.

The obvious character of Messiaen's gestures, his use of the hammiest rhetorical tricks, once attracted derision. Yet, while a taste for his music is not universal, enough people have acquired it to raise Messiaen to classic status - Messiaen's is music of conviction if nothing else. And he was oblivious to some of the echoes it evokes for mortals lesser than himself. In the 10th piece, "Regard de l'Esprit de joie", there's a section he labels "like a hunting song, like horns", but which might equally suggest the brash syncopations of big bands. That would have horrified Messiaen, for he was not a fan of jazz, but it's far from an isolated similarity, either in the Vingt Regards or in Messiaen's music as a whole.

Joanna MacGregor is thoroughly conversant with jazz and has made her own transcriptions of the great Erroll Garner, so it isn't surprising that she showed particular ease and naturalness in Messiaen's more profane escapades on Sunday afternoon. Where some pianists sound as if they are launching a vigorous assault on a pile of dirty dishes, she really enjoyed herself. If Messiaen evoked nothing so much as the cocktail hour in the penultimate piece, then so much the better. MacGregor was marvellous, too, in the quiet pieces, particularly in "Regard du silence", with its opening like dripping taps, a network of complex chords in two main strands, the lower one lagging in slow rhythmic imitation of the upper. Then, later, her control of a smooth four-part passage in the middle register, at moderate volume, was like a finger luxuriously travelling down your spine.

She took enormous pleasure, too, in the variety of musical character - in, for instance, the oriental references of the 16th piece, where she depicted the procession of the Magi with a stylish sense of how to shape and accentuate an intricately decorated line so that it tossed and danced. Above all, she played all the music like a pianist rather than a mere decoder of dots, as contemporary specialists sometimes do. Her keen ear for the piano's beauty, in every register, at every dynamic level, made of the instrument a magic box of weird and wonderful sonorities, conjuring up the exotic sources of Messiaen's inspiration in the music of India, the Far East, the sky and heaven itself. Adrian Jack