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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Joanna MacGregor’s powerful performance of Britten’s Piano Concerto has a formidable advantage over rival versions when it includes as a supplement the slow movement from the original (1938) version of the Concerto, which Britten replaced with the impressive Impromptu when he revised the work in 1945. Steuart Bedford is the ever-sympathetic conductor in this and the other two works, the overture for the early opera, Paul Bunyan, with orchestration amplified by Colin Matthews, and the incidental music which Britten wrote in 1939 for J.B. Priestley’s Johnson over Jordan, one of his ‘time’ plays. Written at high speed, the score is most enjoyable and includes one gem in the delightful dance-band parody, The Spider and the Fly.

Fanfare, November 2005

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David Hurwitz, April 2005

This is probably the finest version of the Britten Piano Concerto available, notwithstanding Britten's own justly revered rendition with Sviatoslav Richter on Decca. Certainly that is a wonderful performance, one that no one who loves the work should miss. But many years have come and gone. Although I do not subscribe to automatic assumptions of musical "progress", and even if Joanna MacGregor is no Richter, she certainly knows this work and plays it beautifully, and in any case the qualities that she and Steuart Bedford bring to the piece are quite different from what we find on the composer's own recording. In particular, Richter and Britten treat the work more in the Romantic virtuoso tradition, with a clear spotlight on the soloist, with the orchestra in a decidedly accompanying role. MacGregor and Bedford work more as equals. Bedford's snappier rhythms and lighter textures combine with a less prominent piano to create an elegant, neo-classical atmosphere that's equally in keeping with Britten's idiom, as well as with the work's suite-like construction and formal patterning. The fact that MacGregor isn't as powerful a solo personality when compared to Richter does not mean that she is any less in command of Britten's flashy keyboard writing. Her finger-work in the opening Toccata is dazzling, her rhythmic acuity clearly superior to Richter's, while her sensitivity in the third-movement Impromptu and her give-and-take with the instrumentalists of the English Chamber Orchestra are wholly winning. She also brings plenty of spirit and a real "kick" to the concluding march, aided in no small degree by Bedford's alertness and the absolutely first-class sonics. You also get the concerto's original third movement, a Recitative and Aria, as a thoughtful appendix. Ondine's recording, featuring Ralf Gothoni, also includes this movement but foolishly puts it in the middle of the work, meaning you have to skip over it (or the Impromptu) so as not to get stuck with a spurious, five-movement conflation of both versions. The couplings, both rarities, are just as brilliantly played. The Johnson Over Jordan Suite is especially entertaining, particularly its jazzy centerpiece, The Spider and the Fly. In short, I couldn't be happier that Naxos has been reissuing these excellent Collins Classics Britten recordings. They were and remain marvelous, almost as interpretively commanding as the composer's own, and they deserve a long life.

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