Nocturnes for Night Owls (CD review)

Classical Treasures for Sweet Dreams. Lara Downes, solo piano. TriTone Music.

Pianist Lara Downes has done several of these theme albums over the past few years, with titles like Invitation to the Dance, American Ballads, and Dream of Me. This latest collection, Nocturnes for Night Owls, she describes as "Classical treasures for sweet dreams." I think you can guess the kind of music it involves.

The program of sixteen short pieces begins with Prokofiev's "Evening," slightly odd in mood and character but appropriate to the occasion. Debussy's "Reverie" and Chopin's Nocturne No. 1 follow, both of them wonderfully soothing. Then we get "Hebrew Lullaby Nos. 1 and 2" by Lazare Saminsky, performer-conductor-composer of Jewish music, both works comfortably realized.

Poulenc's Nocturne in C is perhaps the most challenging piece on the disc, though this is not to say it isn't as restful as the other music. Among the additional items on the program, I enjoyed Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 3," Prokofiev's "The Moon Over the Meadows," and, of course, Beethoven's Adagio from his Moonlight Sonata.

Apparently, Ms. Downes intended the album for children as well as adults, as the rather precious album title and cover art indicate. The performances are certainly ultrasmooth, soothing, and gentle. In a liner-note poem about the music she writes, "Listen quietly, listen well, Let this music weave its spell; Let these lovely lullabies Help to close your owlish eyes; Tuck your wings and burrow deep To peaceful dreams and quiet sleep." Music to put you to sleep? Sounds like.

I've listened to this album twice now, the first time during dinner. We had guests over, and my wife put the music on because the disc happened to be sitting on the stereo cabinet waiting for someone to play it. It impressed me during dinner where it provided a perfect backdrop for our casual conversation. The next day I sat down and listened more seriously, finding it not quite as affecting but still charming.

Ms. Downes plays the material in a manner fitting the album's theme, so don't expect anything particularly revelatory, penetrating, or innovative. If you're looking for those qualities, try Rubinstein, Horowitz, Ashkenazy, Kovacevich, Kissin, and the like. Ms. Downes performs the music lightly, delicately, dreamily rather than in any grand style.

The recording itself, made in 2010 at the Sherman & Clay Recital Hall, Roseville, California, is somewhat narrow in stage width, almost monaural, and soft in tone. Yet it suits the nature of the music just fine, even if it won't please every audiophile. While the warmth of the piano nicely complements the sweetness of the playing, it doesn't really clarify the notes especially well. Who cares. It beats New Age elevator music by a country mile.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa