Britten and Barber: Piano Concertos (CD review)

Also, Britten: Night Piece; Barber: Nocturne for Piano. Elizabeth Joy Roe, piano; Emil Tabakov, London Symphony Orchestra. Decca 478 8189.

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
Then, we get the Piano Concerto Op. 38 by American composer Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Barber premiered it in 1962, with John Browning as soloist. By coincidence, the Delaware Symphony asked Ms. Roe to replace Mr. Browning in subscription performances of the work in 2003 when Browning passed away. Much as I enjoyed Ms. Roe's playing in the Britten concerto, I enjoyed it even more in the Barber. She calls it "arguably the preeminent American piano concerto," and one can hardly argue the point. Roe handles it with much grace and beauty, with an ethereal touch in the slow movement that brings out all of its light, wispy, gossamer qualities. Then we get to the finale, and one can see why several prominent pianists of Barber's day refused to play it before the composer revised and simplified it. Even reworked, it has quite a lot of dazzling finger work required, which again Ms. Roe has no trouble negotiating.

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:


  1. Stanislav Richter...? :)

    Regards, Thomas Roth

  2. Momentary mind fade. I hope "momentary." Thanks, Thomas.


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa