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:


JJP

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

    ReplyDelete

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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa