Béla Bartók: Hungarian Folksongs from the Csík District, Sz. 35a
Frédéric Chopin: Mazurka in F-sharp minor, Op. 6, No. 1 – Mazurka in F minor, Op. 68, No. 4
Sergei Prokofiev: Pastoral Sonatina in C major, Op. 59, No. 3
Bohuslav Martinů: Dumka No. 2, H. 250 – Dumka No. 3, H. 285bis
Igor Stravinsky: Tango in D minor
Sergei Rachmaninov: Prelude in D minor, Op. posth. – Fragments, Op. posth.
Kurt Weill: Lost in the Stars
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Sonata No. 2, Op. 2: Moderato
William Grant Still: Africa: II. Land of Romance
Paul Bowles: Preludes for Piano, No. 1, 2, 3, 6
Michael Sahl: Tango from the Exiles’ Cafe
Darius Milhaud: Trois Rag-Caprices, opus 78: No. 2 (“Romance”)
Mohammed Fairouz: Piano Miniature No. 6, “Addio”
Lara Downes (piano)
Recorded at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia (September 12-14, 2012) – 60’19
Steinway & Sons 30016
As Ms. Downes writes in the album’s liner notes, this imagined Exiles’ Cafe is “filled with dream-chasers: travelers, nomads, explorers, gypsies and vagabonds—as well as refugees thrust on journeys undesired.” I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better soundtrack of solo piano music to describe such a place. Music by Chopin, Bartók, Martinù, all filled with longing and forlorn desire saturates this disc. The familiar pieces (Chopin, Bartók, and Rachmaninoff) juxtaposed with more obscure pieces from Paul Bowles and Michael Sahl, all demand an artist of unique expressive and technical capabilities. Steinway & Sons apparently has one in spades in Lara Downes.
It would be tempting to let a disc like this slip into the melancholy and kitschy, but that is not the case. The pacing is smooth and the variety is interesting enough that it demands to be listened to with full attention. That’s not to say there’s much that is esoteric about this disc, as it is wonderfully easy listening. Downes’ extremely well-recorded sound cascades forth with rich colors and tenderness, avoiding sappiness. The disc opens with Bartók’s famous Hungarian Folksongs, played wistfully, but simply and spritely enough. They are at once familiar, filled with nostalgia and color. Her light touch and natural elasticity of phrasing make for a tantalizing reading. In the context of the Bartok, Chopin’s Mazurka sounds all the more contemplative and forlorn and moves forward with little self-awareness.
It is such a juxtaposition that makes this disc so successful. From Prokofiev to Martinů, Sahl’s earthy tango to Milhaud’s lyric Rag Caprice, this album succeeds on programming and Downes’ authentic affinity for the music. It is no small coincidence that Kurt Weill’s expansive and moody Lost in the Stars marks the halfway mark of the album. It is a tune that seems to encapsulate all that Downes is striving to convey. Its jazzy harmonies convey all of the uncertainty and other worldness of an Exiles’ Cafe. Downes avoids kitsch in this great arrangement by Jed Distler, the melody enfolded in technical aplomb and musical inventiveness. It is a moving performance that I could listen to over and over again.
That applies to this entire disc. It may not be for everyone, certainly. Some may be put off by the concept or the compilation-type program. But those willing to take a visit to Lara Downes’ “Exiles Cafe” will be rewarded with an imaginative program and exquisitely performed and recorded playing. Just take a listen to her authoritative reading of Korngold’s “Moderato” or the previously mentioned Kurt Weill. You may find yourself, like me, enjoying your stay at Exiles’ Cafe, being lost in the stars.
Matthew Richard Martinez