Chopin's Mazurkas

Despite an energetic and poetic performance, the Mazurka marathon reveals limitations

Joanna MacGregor is a competent pianist and her affable stage presence convinces the Great Hall audience that it is part of a voyage of discovery – namely, the exploration of Chopin’s complete output of Mazurkas.

Doubtless there won't be any major revelations unearthed here and I yet remain unpersuaded by the series description, coined by Schumann as 'cannons buried in flowers'. That may have been the case during the troubled nationalistic times of the 19th century. Nowadays, the powder is not quite so dry.

This mazurka marathon is one of the more challenging ways to celebrate Chopin’s bicentenary in this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen's. I have to confess to being a coward and copping out of attending all three concerts featuring MacGregor, hoping that the best examples of the genre would be kept to the last. As it turns out, each concert sensibly surveys the complete output and includes both early and late mazurkas.

MacGregor reveals her own enthusiasm for the mazurkas and cosily refers to this 'cute little dance' as the possible encapsulation of an unexpectedly rich spectrum of characteristics from rustic humour to urbane regret, from simple brevity to extended sophistication.

She explains that, although primarily a lightweight musical essay, the mazurka can become the vehicle for some of Chopin’s most intimate expression. Not to disagree with any of this, but one cannot help but wonder if this particular assault – to continue the military analogy – will not result in overkill. Would discretion have been the better part of valour?

Enough. After half an hour and only midway through the concert, and despite MacGregor’s committed energy and her best attempts at poetic sensibility, it's difficult not to concentrate on the sameness of the pieces, stemming initially from the consistent rhythmic motivation driving the mazurka form itself.

The unrelieved and concentrated study is almost too revealing of the obvious similarities rather than the subtle differences - is this is a result of Chopin’s stylistic homogeneity or the pianist’s interpretative limitations?