20 March 2015

CD REVIEW: Samuel Barber & Benjamin Britten – PIANO CONCERTI (Elizabeth Joy Roe, piano; DECCA 478 8189)

CD REVIEW: Samuel Barber & Benjamin Britten - PIANO CONCERTI (DECCA 478 8189)SAMUEL BARBER (1910 – 1981): Piano Concerto, Op. 38 and Nocturne for Piano, Op. 33 and BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976): Piano Concerto, Op. 13 [1945 revised version] and Notturno (Night Piece)Elizabeth Joy Roe, piano; London Symphony Orchestra; Emil Tabakov, conductor [Recorded in Cadogan Hall, London, UK, 20 – 22 September 2013; DECCA 478 8189; 1 CD, 74:30; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1910 and Lowestoft, Suffolk, in 1913, respectively, Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten were separated by far more than three years and the Atlantic Ocean. The precocious child of a comfortable, musical family that included the acclaimed contralto Louise Homer, the composer’s aunt, Barber was from an early age exposed to art and artists. Britten’s origins were by his own assessment thoroughly middle class, though he too showed early signs of his prodigious gifts. The composers notably shared the distinction of finding in one person a partner in both life and art, Gian Carlo Menotti in Barber’s case and Sir Peter Pears in Britten’s, but their musical infancies were very different. Whereas Barber’s reputations as a musician and composer were established by the time that he was in his late teens, Britten was a decade older before his music gained wide recognition. The American composer sought to increase the stature of his native land’s music by elevating the significance of compositions in an accessible, populist vein: his British counterpart’s music grew ever more cosmopolitan as the composer’s career progressed, revitalizing English music by infusing it with sounds and spirits drawn from other cultures. Despite the cultural, ideological, and societal differences that separated them, Barber and Britten both came to epitomize for many observers the Twentieth-Century musics of their fatherlands. Born in ​Chicago, educated at Juilliard​, and renowned, among a wide range of accomplishments, for her artistic partnership with fellow pianist Greg Anderson, young American pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe insightfully explores in her excellently-written liner notes for this disc the parallels, perpendiculars, and intersections between Barber’s and Britten’s Piano Concerti. What makes this disc an exceptional delight is the manner in which her written eloquence is unaffectedly manifested in her playing of the Concerti. Though hardly neglected, neither Concerto is as popular as Mozart’s concerti or the great Romantic concerti of the Nineteenth Century, but Ms. Roe’s performances suggest that the blame for this must be laid at the feet of listeners rather than at those of the composers. Adhering to the high standards of presentation and sonic production for which the DECCA label is acclaimed, this disc is a very welcome addition to the discographies of both the composers and their music for piano. It is also a superlative recorded—and superlatively-recorded—introduction to the solo work of a young lady who seems to possess every quality needed to become one of the Twenty-First Century’s most imaginative pianists.

Britten himself played the 1938 première of his Piano Concerto, his first work for piano and orchestra. The 1945 revision played by Ms. Roe was first performed at the 1946 Cheltenham Festival, its London première played soon after by the ill-fated Noel Mewton-Wood. During the past forty years, Britten’s Concerto has been associated in the minds of many listeners with Sviatoslav Richter, who recorded the Concerto in 1970 under the composer's direction. There are hints of Richter’s singular way with the music in Ms. Roe’s performance, but her interpretation is very much her own. Expertly supported by Emil Tabakov and the London Symphony Orchestra,​ she rips into the Concerto’s opening Toccata (Allegro molto e con brio) with a show of force as awe-inspiring for its unapologetically thorny pragmatism as for its uncompromising virtuosity. Ms. Roe’s fidelity to the notes on the page is allied with an uncanny elasticity of approach: listening casually, the incredible tautness of rhythm that more careful listening reveals seems miles away from the pianist’s rhapsodic playing. She does not shrink from the rough edges of the music, her incisive executions of Britten’s unconventional but approachable bass figurations grounding her playing of the most far-flung passages of the movement. The restless harmonies of the Waltz (Allegretto) draw from Ms. Roe playing of special refinement, and she and Maestro Tabakov collaborate to lend tender contemplativeness to the Impromptu (Andante lento), Britten’s replacement for the original Recitative and Aria movement from the 1938 version of the Concerto. Ms. Roe’s left hand gets a workout in the March (Allegro moderato sempre a la marcia), which she delivers with the brash elation of the brass bands that were once the prides of virtually every English town. The LSO musicians follow both Maestro Tabakov and Ms. Roe with consummate artistry. In the magical, mercurial performance that Ms. Roe provides on this disc, Britten’s ‘night piece,’ Notturno, is both subtle and seductive: so ethereal is her playing that the voice of Oberon and the mysterious sylvan world of the composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream seem very close at hand.

Commissioned by the publishing house of G. Schirmer to celebrate the firm's centennial and first performed in 1962 at the newly-built Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center with John Browning at the keyboard and Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Barber's Piano Concerto garnered him a second Pulitzer Prize in 1963 [the first was for his opera Vanessa]. A broadly-conceived, unabashedly festive work, the Concerto is a demanding piece that requires of the soloist the kind of concentrated brilliance that must be fastidiously practiced but seem spontaneous. One does not play music like this as confidently as Ms. Roe does on this disc without having devoted hours upon hours of study to the score, but her performance exudes a laissez-faire exuberance that makes the difficulty of the music secondary to her obvious glee in playing it. Ms. Roe brings to the opening Allegro appassionato movement an expansive reading marked by unstinting attack on the music’s climaxes. Her playing is splendidly athletic, the robust tone that she coaxes from the sonorous Steinway instrument at her disposal filling Barber’s deceptively jaunty melodic lines with sunny but occasionally dark humor. The contrast between the opening movement and the wistful Canzone (moderato) is made all the more apparent by the tranquil elegance of Ms. Roe’s playing of the second movement. The intensity of her playing of the Canzone is no less pulse-quickening than that of her playing of the outer, more ‘public’ movements, but the sensitivity to the composer’s contemplative writing that she displays is further evidence of the depth of her gifts. Aided by Maestro Tabakov’s sharply-defined beat and the accurate, alert playing of the LSO, Ms. Roe traverses the Concerto’s closing Allegro molto movement with complementary grace and grandeur, meeting every technical demand with absolute assurance. Barber’s homage to John Field, the Opus 33 Nocturne for Piano, is lovingly played, Ms. Roe’s lustrous phrasing matching her crepuscular shaping of Britten’s Notturno.

Though she débuted as a concerto soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1997, Elizabeth Joy Roe is a pianist whose greatest achievements are still before her. This first recording for DECCA must be counted as one of them. In her dedicatory remarks in the liner notes for the disc, she wrote, ‘This album has been a dream project and a true labour of love.’ Such sentiments are easily expressed, but her playing of Barber’s and Britten’s Piano Concerti and strangely symbiotic ‘night pieces’ validates the sincerity of her assertion. Still, not all labors of love inspire the same feeling in listeners, but it is difficult to imagine any listener failing to find a place in the heart—and on the shelf—for this superb recording.