Elizabeth Joy Roe opens the disc with a blistering tempo for the first movement of Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto (1938/45). She can certainly play, and what’s more she is given an integrated balance, first among equals with the LSO in a spacious and reverberant acoustic – a surprise then to read that the venue is Cadogan Hall, here bolstered if without compromising details and dynamics, yet the bass is a tad heavy (boosted?). It’s all very vivid, as is the performance, save that the recorded perspective is manipulated somewhat, thus there are inconsistencies – and the side drum is all but inaudible between 6’35 and 6’56 – after which Roe gives a likeably capricious account of the cadenza, not least the ominous suggestion of conflict (World War Two just around the corner at the time of composition); she likes the sustaining pedal, mind!
In the middle movements, a ‘Waltz’ and an ‘Impromptu’ (the latter replacing the then existing movement), a vein of fantasy is welcome, opening up possibilities for the music’s potential. The beginning of the ‘Impromptu’ is particularly poised and sensitive and its later fantastical outpourings are well brought out. The final ‘March’ is given with determination and also fully registers the shadows – the composer’s warnings – although the trumpets might have welcomed another go at what is now for posterity a dicey note at 6’47”.
Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto (1962) opens in combative terms, the soloist’s music challenging if emotionally fervent, something continued by the orchestra. It’s a malleable piece, though, often beguiling and lyrical, quite wonderful in fact in its energy and poetry and is well served here. Yet, in the Britten, Roe must yield to Sviatoslav Richter’s recording with the composer (also Decca) and, in the Barber, to original soloist John Browning’s two versions, first with George Szell and then with Leonard Slatkin.
There is though much to admire in the way that Roe approaches the Barber – full of power and crusade and with no shortage of subtlety, the LSO and Emil Tabakov inside the music’s dark passions, and there are some graceful wind solos in the quite-lovely if melancholic slow movement; Barber did sad sentiment so well. The finale is driven and rhythmically angular with some intriguing strangeness along the way. Well done to Elizabeth Joy Roe for championing the piece; she should win it many friends. But in both Concertos I did tire of the upholstered reproduction.
Of the solo pieces, the piano a little thick-sounding (maybe too much pedal, again), Barber’s Nocturne is an expansive meditation that grows in emotionalism, while Britten’s Night Piece (written as a 'test' for the 1963 Leeds International Pianoforte Competition) is rather breathtaking and, surprisingly, reminds of Chopin. It invites many listens.