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Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Piano Concerto (1960) [28.46]
Nocturne for Piano (Homage to John Field) (1959) [4.25]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Piano Concerto (1937-38, rev. 1945) [34.39]
Night Piece (Notturno) (1963) [5.53]
Elizabeth Joe Roe (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Emil Tabakov
rec. Cadogan Hall, London, 2013
DECCA 478 8189 [74.30]

This is a most stimulating release. The album’s erudite notes have been written by the soloist, Elizabeth Joy Roe who remarks on the similarities between the cross-Atlantic lives, experiences and artistic tastes of Britten and Barber and similarities between their two piano concertos. She has clearly thought and felt deeply about both works to give such searching and beautifully judged and nuanced performances. There's equally incisive and colourful support from the LSO under Emil Tabakov. For instance how exquisitely the fragile beauty of the Canzone, the second movement of Barber’s Piano Concerto is shaped on this recording. For me this is one of Barber’s most haunting melodies.

Both piano concertos’ outer movements were conceived in a modern style yet not so much so that the two composer’s own individual voices were allowed to be swamped. Rather, as Ms Roe sagely comments, “… Britten and Barber were originals whose subtle experimentation and innovative treatments of traditional tonality seemed to foretell the non-systematic, genre-blurring styles heard in the new music of our time …” Listening to the outer movements of these two works one may well feel the character of this music is redolent of the unsettled, turbulent atmosphere of the period surrounding World War II.

The second movement of Britten’s concerto is such a sour, sardonic take on the traditional Viennese waltz that it might be thought it reflects Britten’s concern about events in Europe, especially Austria in the period leading up to war. The movement had been preceded by a driven opening movement full of frantic defiance and odd quirkiness. There is, too, a sidewise nod towards the composer’s Peter Grimes music. The third movement in its performance here is the 1945 Impromptu that replaced the original ‘Recitative and Aria’ slow movement. A mournful theme and variations, it includes music of childlike innocence but with a shadowy bass ostinato and material that is poignant and vulnerable. The concerto is rounded off by a March that is bombastic and again redolent of a world on the brink of war.

Barber’s Concerto, dedicated to the highly-regarded pianist John Browning, was moulded to Browning’s pianistic style and formidable technical prowess. The finale was completed only two weeks before the scheduled world premiere. Both Browning and Horowitz declared the music to be unplayable so Barber was obliged to do some hasty rewriting to ensure the performance was a triumph. Even so, Elizabeth Joy Roe confides that the music still has its perils; “it remains a finger-twister”, she says. The opening movement of the concerto lasts as long as the other two movements put together and, like the Britten concerto it is essentially declamatory but not without wit, whimsy and lyricism. I have already covered the beauty of the second movement and the whole is rounded off by the Allegro molto finale that has dissonances and a rather devilish quality. There's also a quirky jazz allusion towards the music of Gershwin.

The two short nocturnes round off this impressive disc. Britten’s suggests bells tolling across an evening landscape and nightingale chirrups. Barber’s tribute to John Field, the Irish inventor of the Nocturne, meanders dreamily.

An intelligent, imaginative pairing in winning performances.

Ian Lace