MacGregor's Piano Concerto is Equal to Richter's ...
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 05/04/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"... but different. Richter's well-loved recording of Britten's only piano concerto, with Britten conducting, is Big Concerto romantic in its take on the work. MacGregor's (and conductor Steuart Bedford's) is rather more neoclassic, almost sounding in spots as if it had been written by one of Les Six (except, of course, for the intentionally Prokofievian finale). That's partly because of the recorded sound. Richter/Britten was recorded in 1970 and although the sound has worn well, it has the orchestra somewhat recessed in comparison to the spotlight on Richter's piano. In the present recording the orchestra, which has some really quite wonderful things to say, is treated as an equal partner. This is all to the advantage of the music, I feel. Add to that the brio that MacGregor brings to her performance, and you have a winner. MacGregor, like Richter, is no shrinking violet and she more than holds her own. It is well known that seven years after the 1938 première of the Concerto (with Britten himself at the piano), the composer threw out the original third movement (of four, subtitled 'Recitative and Aria') and composed a new one, called 'Impromptu.' This recording includes, as the concerto's fifth track, that original. My own opinion is that although there are some lovely moments in the original movement, Britten's replacement works better. But it's good to hear it.
The other pieces here are the rollicking overture to Britten's early American opera 'Paul Bunyan,' written while he and Peter Pears were in the US early in the War. The overture had been dropped when the opera was premièred and existed only in piano score; it was orchestrated by Britten's amanuensis, Colin Matthews, in the 1970s, and brilliantly so. And the CD ends with Paul Hindmarsh's arrangement of Britten's incidental music for J. B. Priestley's 1939 play, 'Johnson over Jordan.' It is notable for its use of jazz, particularly in the big band number 'The Spider and the Fly,' which sounds like nothing that I can recall Britten ever writing. It is luscious and even a little sexy. Who knew Britten was capable of writing this kind of music?
This budget-priced CD is a compilation put together from early 1990s performances released separately on the now-defunct Collins Classics label. Bedford as an exponent of Britten's music needs no special pleading; he is obviously the most expert Britten conductor we have. Sound is marvelous and these performances have a freshness and verve that is entirely infectious.