Exiles’ Cafe (CD review)

Music of Bartok, Chopin, Prokofiev, Martinu, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Korngold, Weill, Still, Bowles, Sahl, Milhaud, and Fairouz. Lara Downes, piano. Steinway & Sons 30016.

“If one lives in exile, the cafe
becomes at once the family home,
the nation, church and parliament,
a desert and a place of pilgrimage,
cradle of illusions and their cemetery.”
--Hermann Kesten

The idea behind Steinway concert artist Lara Downes’s album Exiles’ Cafe concerns the many celebrated composers who have, for one reason or another, found refuge away from their homelands, writing some of their best work as expatriates--in exile, so to speak. The composers listed above fit into such a category, some of them finding shelter in Paris, in England, in America, when they found it difficult to return to their native countries. Perhaps living in a new land helped their creative spirit, who knows. What Ms. Downes has done is record a series of brief piano works from thirteen such displaced emigrates, all of the pieces benefiting from her gentle yet virtuosic playing style and from Steinway’s excellent sound.

The first composer we encounter in this metaphorical cafe is Bela Bartok, represented here by three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csik District. They are quiet, serene, slightly melancholy, always appealing pieces, like most of the music on the album. In playing them, Ms. Downes’s technique seems to disappear into the music, her performances direct, straightforward, unadorned, and the better for it.

Next up, we hear the first of two mazurkas--Op. 6, No. 1 and Op. 68, No. 4. They contrast somewhat with the relative simplicity of the preceding Bartok, yet through Ms. Downes they communicate the same semisweet spirit. After that, we get Prokofiev’s Pastoral Sonatina in C major, which has a lovely gait, charmingly exploited by Ms. Downes. And so it goes, each composition a little gem, exquisitely, lovingly played, each conveying a varying sense of longing, perhaps the composers’ lingering regrets about days gone by.

I particularly liked the two little dumkas (Slavic folk songs that alternate between gaiety and sadness) by Bohuslav Martinu, as well as Stravinsky’s surprisingly old-fashioned but effective Tango. Then, too, Korngold’s Moderato from his Sonata No. 2, Op. 2, reminds us why he achieved his greatest success in Hollywood with his highly Romantic music. While Ms. Downes in no way hesitates to expand upon its Romantic inclinations, she never over-dramatizes it, either. She is, above all, a subtle pianist whom I have yet to hear unnecessarily glamorize or sensationalize a subject.

All of the music on the program glistens with a subdued radiance, the tunes reflecting a quietly hopeful, hardly veiled sorrow. American composer Michael Sahl sums up the album’s unique appeal when he writes, “Perhaps it is only naive fools who keep returning to the kitchen door of beauty and tears, whining and scratching to be let in. I don’t think so. I think that we all return time and again to that kitchen door because beauty, wherever and however, is what we need to survive, and, ultimately, to triumph.”

Steinway & Sons made the recording at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, in 2012. Rich, warm, and ultrasmooth, the piano sound they obtained is not so close as to spread the instrument across the room yet provides a realistic width and dimensionality. A good, clean transient attack helps the verisimilitude, the overall response ideally suited to the refined, comforting, if sometimes heavy-hearted nature of the music involved.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


1 comment:

  1. Having heard Lara introduce her wonderful piano project in Toronto, I can only echo the positive comments of the reviewer who provides an excellent explanation of the rationale that Lara created for ExILES cAFE.
    I look forward to her next projects which will assuredly be equally provocative and well performed

    Max Weissengruber Toronto Ontario


Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa