Elizabeth Joy Roe / Emil Tabakov

Britten, Barber: Piano Concertos; Nocturnes

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The piano concertos of Benjamin Britten (begun in 1938, finished in 1945) and Samuel Barber (1960-1962) make a strong pairing, and the place of each in the repertory is probably stronger than 50 years ago when academicism held such sway. Korean American pianist Elizabeth Joy Roe, prior to this release better known as half of the thoroughly enjoyable Anderson and Roe piano duo, delivers ambitious and largely successful performances. The two works have some heft to them, with Britten's virtuoso work infused with the sharp, nervous quality of its time of genesis just before World War II, and Barber's extraordinarily difficult writing complemented by a grand attempt to combine serialist structures with his basic late Romantic aesthetic (and the work remains one of the few to pull this off). The program is not well served by the album graphics, which one might liken to Vogue magazine ads if Vogue would not have done a much better job with them. But Roe's performance of the Barber, for which she replaced the work's ailing dedicatee, John Browning, in a 2003 concert, is especially strong: vigorous, meltingly beautiful in the slow movement, and confident in the treacherous finale. The Britten has a sort of minatory edge that Roe gets less successfully, but recompense is more than given by the two solo-piano Nocturnes, one by each composer, that close out the program; the one by Barber, an homage to John Field, is absolutely entrancing in Roe's hands. The one real disincentive is mushy sound from Decca, although London's Cadogan Hall was a reasonable choice of venue. A recommended performance of two concertos emerging as among the greatest of the 20th century in their genre.

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