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Joanna MacGregor, City Hall, Glasgow

Joanna MacGregor, the most free-spirited of artists, produced a fantastically unpredictable and controversial ending to her performance yesterday of Bach’s Goldberg Variations; so before charting the trajectory of her interpretation, we’d better deal with that.

After the last, and most introspective, of the three minor-key variations in the colossal piece, the reflective clouds were dispelled by the warm, rippling breeze of major-key sonorities that MacGregor conjured from the piano.

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Then, with big, booming bass notes, organ-like chords and a sense of near-rhapsodic gallop in the music, she was into the final furlong, heading for the reprise of the serenely calm little aria that is the heart and start of the piece.

And what she did was extraordinary. As the waves of clangorous sound dispersed, you realised that she had actually started playing the aria while the pealing sound tolled on. You didn’t hear it begin. It just gradually emerged from the subsiding sound, like a distant memory. Bach purists were probably climbing the walls. I found it an incredibly poetic and haunting image.

The big structure of her interpretation was long range, with the emotionally mountainous 15th variation, slow and solemn in the minor key, as a crucial point of balance.

From that moment, the music returned to the major key with a feeling of liberation. Not even the second foray into the minor halted its progress. Only that third, heart-stopping minor-key reflection gave pause to the flow.

Within the big shape, it was MacGregor the risk-taker at work, painting alternative perspectives within each repeat section of every variation. She lives dangerously, this spirited artist, but her journey through the Goldbergs was an enthralling one.

Star rating: ****

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