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CD Review

Orchestral Debut

Elizabeth Joy Roe, piano
* London Symphony Orchestra/Emil Tabakov
Decca Classics 4788189
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It gives me no great pleasure to downgrade an album on presentation, but this feels like one of Deutsche Grammophon's recent piano projects. This is not a compliment, Universal Music Group. The notes are extensive and heartfelt, but also rather flowery in typeface and appearance. More distressingly, they are hard to read, and contain nothing regarding the conductor and orchestra. I suppose that at this late date, we are just taking the London Symphony Orchestra for granted? And who is Emil Tabakov, and why should we care about him conducting these two highly individual piano concertos? Even the sound isn't all that special, which is typical of Deutsche Grammophon superstar projects.

All of this is a pity, because it turns out that Elizabeth Joy Roe mostly lives up to the hype. Maybe the appeal isn't overly wide for this kind of program (the disc had a March 2015 release despite having 2014 all over the box, so God only knows where Decca tried marketing this program originally) but we have to admire the inventiveness all the same. The Britten gets a wholly engaging reading, though I still have no real passion for the rather drab orchestral part. It sounds even less attractive with Emil Tabakov's disinterested time-beating. I understand wanting to use the London Symphony, at least for the Britten, but the results sound ill-balanced and bored. None of this seems to bother Roe, who pushes relentlessly forward in the opening movement to ensure that the music doesn't drag (the conductor wants to slow down just a hair in places, and it's noticeable). Unfortunately, this comes at the expensive of subtlety, which is lacking here. And the less said about the London brass, the better. They sound soggy at climaxes, and there's ample evidence that they are capable of much more.

Thankfully, Roe isn't all bluster. Quieter sections of the work feature some lovely and nuanced playing. The pianist's interactions with the woodwinds before the conclusion of the first movement are wholly convincing. The London Symphony also manages to get its act together for the slow movement, which has a good deal to offer the listener. From there, the disc is somewhat less interesting. Much as I admire the technical chops of the pianist, I feel like there's room for a playfulness and joy in the opening of the Barber that eludes everyone involved. The London Symphony has little love for the composer, even though Roe's serious approach is at least justified by her agile fingers. Still, the whole work feels so pokerfaced that its hard to imagine that anyone is enjoying themselves. The solo selections are lovely, but not worth the price of admission. I want to like this a lot more than I do, but it's really only half special.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman