This recording of the Britten and Barber piano concertos makes a fine orchestral debut for American pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe. As she puts it, "This album unites my American roots with my longstanding affinity for England, as well as my fascination with the night, the idea of place, and eras past. With emotional immediacy and eloquence, each work on this album evokes milieu, mood, and memory to virtually cinematic effect, while striking resonant chords both comforting and haunting. The music of both Britten and Barber shaped my artistic development at pivotal points in my life, introducing me to illuminating new soundscapes and techniques, and inspiring me to approach my music-making with greater boldness and honesty."
It may come as something of a relief that she is doing the Britten and Barber pieces for her concerto album debut and that neither she nor Decca decided she should undertake a more massive or well known work like the Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov concertos, where competition among recordings is already pretty intense. Her style seems well suited to Britten and Barber, and she is able to display both her bravura finger work as well as her delicate, sensitive side. Not that she doesn't have some formidable competition among Britten and Barber recordings, however: She has to go head to head with Sviatoslav Richter and the composer himself in the Britten concerto (Decca) and with Barber's intended soloist, John Browning, and George Szell (Sony) in the Barber concerto. Still, Ms. Roe holds her own, and even though after hearing Ms. Roe's recording many listeners may still have clear preferences for other performers, it takes little away from Ms. Roe's interpretations.
The first thing on the program is the Piano Concerto Op. 13 by English composer, conductor, and pianist Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), written in 1938 and revised in 1945. The concerto is in four movements, the third movement originally a Recitative and Aria and later changed to an Impromptu: Andante lento. Ms. Roe plays the revised version. The composer described the piece as "simple and in direct form," dedicating it to the English composer Lennox Berkeley.
Britten may have said his work was simple and direct, but, in fact, it is also rather flashy, especially the opening movement, which exhibits a good deal of brilliant daring. It's here that Ms. Roe sounds just a tad reticent, but, again, that's in comparison to a towering performance from Richter. On its own, Roe sounds just fine, just a touch softer and more glowing than Richter and maybe a little less lively. I would chalk this up to Ms. Roe's inherent sensitivity, because she certainly captures the varying moods of the music pretty well, in particular the more poetic moments.
Ms. Roe comes into her own in the second-movement waltz, which is hardly a waltz at all, appearing more like something Mahler might have written in its slightly playful, slightly sinister, slightly ironic manner. Ms. Roe handles it beautifully, just as she does the sorrowful, moody third movement and the dramatically martial finale.
|Elizabeth Joy Roe|
For brief companion works, Ms. Roe chose Barber's Nocturne for Piano, Op. 33 and Britten's Night Piece. The album keeps getting better and better as it goes along, with these final two nocturnes quite lovely, thanks, as I say, to Ms. Roe's essential lyricism. She brings out all the Chopin and Debussy-like qualities of the music while making them highly individual, too.
I doubt that anyone who already owns the Richter or Browning recordings of the two concertos are going to be eager about buying something new unless it's significantly better, unless the person is an avid collector of everything ever recorded by the composers involved. Ms. Roe's performances are not significantly better; they are simply different--softer and lighter--and there is always room for different.
Producers Jimmy Kim and Stephan Cahen and engineer Jin Choi of Sempre la Musica recorded the album for the Decca Music Group at Cadogan Hall, London in September 2013. One thing this album's got that many of its competitors don't have is an extremely natural and dynamic sound. In the concertos the piano appears nicely integrated with the orchestra, placed just ahead of it, the rest of the instruments slightly more recessed and displaying a fine sense of depth and dimensionality. The midrange is mostly warm and comfortable, not at all bright, forward, or glassy; and the bass and treble emerge modestly extended. The whole affair sounds like a good soloist and orchestra playing in a real concert hall.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: