becomes at once the family home,
the nation, church and parliament,
a desert and a place of pilgrimage,
cradle of illusions and their cemetery.”
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: