Lara Downes: For Love of You (CD review)

Music of Robert Schumann and Clara: Piano Concerto in A minor; Fantasiestucke; Three Romances. Lara Downes, piano; Martin West, San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Flipside Music FL0013.

"My Clara, what would I not do for love of you?" --Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck, 1838.

"For Love of You is a tribute to Clara Wieck Schumann, painter and composer, celebrating the 200th anniversary of her birth (9/13/1819)."

Pianist Lara Downes is famous for her theme-oriented albums, and this one is no different, honoring the music and marriage of two beloved composers, Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck Schumann. The program begins with Robert's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 from 1845; continues with Clara's Three Romances, Op. 11 from 1840; and ends with Robert's Fantasiestucke, Op. 12 from 1837.

So, things begin with Robert's Piano Concerto, his one and only piano concerto, with Ms. Downes accompanied by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Martin West, their Music Director since 2005. When Robert premiered the completed concerto, his wife Clara, an accomplished pianist, was the soloist. Here, of course, it's Ms. Downes, also an accomplished pianist, although she doesn't always get to show off her classical credentials in full-scale works.

After so many years of hearing the Piano Concerto played by gung-ho Romantic pianists banging away with it, Ms. Downes's performance may come as a surprise. For the good, I hope. She takes a slightly gentler approach to the score than do most other performers, a more nuanced approach that eschews a lot of the theatrics we often associate with it. Perhaps Ms. Downes is remembering that Clara Schumann premiered the work, and this is part of her tribute to the composer's wife. The interpretation certainly emphasizes the longings and dreamlike aspects of the music.

In any case, with Ms. Downes the opening Allegro affettuoso lives up to its name, "fast but tender and affecting." And Maestro West ensures a poignant presentation with his lyrical direction of the orchestral support. It's really quite refreshing. The slow central movement, an Andantino, follows suit, lighthearted and charming but never sentimental. Then Ms. Downes and company bring the work to a rousing but still softhearted close.

Lara Downes
I've read over the years that Schumann meant his concerto to express the feelings of longing and happiness between two people in love, presumably inspired by the love between Clara and him. If this be the case, Ms. Downes conveys those ideas as well as anyone on record. It's a lovely performance all the way around.

Following the concerto we get Clara Schumann's Three Romances, a brief, three-movement work written during Clara and Robert's rather turbulent courtship. Ms. Downs suggests in the liner notes that the pieces "illustrate the passion and creative synergy that brought two great artists together, despite obstacles and struggles, into a union that produced some of the greatest works of the Romantic era." Ms. Downes's playing illustrates the point with a performance of controlled passion and creativity.

The program concludes with Robert Schumann's Fantasiestucke, also written during Clara and Robert's courtship. The Fantasiestucke is a set of eight solo pieces for piano inspired by an 1814-15 collection of works by one of Robert's favorite authors, E.T.A. Hoffmann (think here of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, Delibes's Coppelia, and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker). The music is colorful, to be sure, and as in the concerto depicts the two sides of the composer's own personality, one dreamy, the other passionate. Ms. Downes's handling of the material is appropriately vivid, exciting, picturesque, and reflective.

The only minor drawback to the product is the fact that like so many CD's these days, the disc is enclosed in a slip-out compartment in a cardboard container. This necessitates using one's fingers on the top and bottom of the disc to pull it out, not only incurring inevitable fingerprints but possibly scratching the disc on the cardboard in the process.

Producer Adam Abeshouse made the recording at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, CA in February 2016. As we might expect from a record made at Skywalker, it sounds excellent. In the concerto the piano is exceptionally well defined without being too close-up, and the orchestra, perhaps a trifle soft, is well set out behind the soloist. Never once do we hear a note that is too bright, too edgy, too forward, nor too veiled or subdued. The solo pieces are likewise well detailed and smoothly recorded.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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