Thursday, March 21, 2013

In 'Exiles' Cafe,' Pianist Lara Downes Artfully Assembles 21 Miniatures, Including 'Land of Romance' of W.G. Still, Into A Single Musical Narrative

Lara Downes

Exiles' Cafe; Lara Downes, Piano; Steinway & Sons 30016 (2013)

The first recording of the pianist Lara Downes was 13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Reimagined; Tritone Records (2011). It was at once a solo piano recording and a collaborative project, with an impressive roster of prominent composers volunteering their own variations on the Goldberg Variations of J. S. Bach.

On Exiles' Cafe, Lara Downes is a meta-composer of sorts. She has collected 21 tracks of miniatures by composers who are mostly major figures in classical music. Often the pieces have been overlooked in the classical repertoire. The pianist provides this introduction:

“THIS ALBUM'S INSPIRATION – and title track - is American composer Michael Sahl's 'Tango from the Exiles' Cafe,' which I heard years ago and which captured my imagination. I began to fantasize about this cafe as a place both real and metaphorical, a place where individuals gather from all over the world to find a home away from home.”

“The music collected here reflects that transformative passage of what is left behind and what is discovered ahead. The miniatures speak to vanished worlds and altered lives, to the fragility of destiny and the possibilities of new beginnings: postcards from the Exiles Cafe.

The pianist's mastery of the role of meta-composer manifests itself immediately. Brief and obscure fragments of music from unrelated periods and places are artfully assembled into an uninterrupted musical narrative.

Béla Bartók: Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csik District, BB 45/b. Sz. 35a: No. 1. Rubato (1:17); No. 2. L'istesso tempo (1:05); 3. Poco vivo (0:50)
Lara Downes tells us Bartok fled Hungary in 1940 because it was occupied by the Nazis. She concludes: “In exile in New York, Bartók's grief over the fate of his country was never healed...”

Frédérick Chopin: Mazurka, Op. 6, No. 1
The liner notes tell us Chopin was only 20 when successful premieres of two piano concertos led him to begin a tour abroad. “Just three weeks later, the November Uprising broke out as the Poles revolted against the rule of the Russian Empire; the insurrection spread, only to be crushed a year later.” Chopin composed this mazurka during the first year of his lifelong exile.

Sergei Prokofiev: Pastoral Sonatina, Op. 59, No. 3
Prokofiev left Russia in 1917 as the Revolution approached, the notes tell us. He enjoyed success while living in Paris, yet returned to the Soviet Union in 1936, a year after composing the Pastoral Sonatina.

Bohuslav Martinu: Dumka No. 2, H. 250 (“Contemplation”), Dumka No. 3, H. 285bis
Dumka No. 2 was written in pre-war Paris; No. 3 dates from “the first difficult days of Martinu's exile in America.”

Stravinsky: Tango
“In 1939 Stravinsky moved to California, where he would remain for the rest of his life. The Tango dates from his first year in Hollywood.”

Rachmaninov: Prelude in D minor (Op. Posth.); Fragments
These works are among the few Rachmaninov composed in the year before he left Russia in 1916.

Kurt Weill: “Lost in the Stars”

Lost in the Stars was Weill's last work for the stage, written in 1949, the year before he died.”

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Sonata No. 2 in E major
“Korngold was a boy of 13 when he wrote this sonata, shocking in light of the emotional scope and power of the piece.”

William Grant Still: Africa: II. Land of Romance
William Grant Still (1895-1978) is profiled at, which features a comprehensive Works List by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma, The entry for Africa begins: Africa; suite, for orchestra (1930). 1. Land of peace; 2. Land of romance; 3. Land of superstition.”

The Africa entry goes on to explain that William Grant Still reorchestrated the composition in 1931, a year after its premiere. The work was withdrawn by the composer, but it was subsequently recorded in versions for solo piano and for orchestra.

A symphonic version of Africa (27:51) was recorded by the Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra under John Jeter, Conductor, on Naxos 8.559174 (2005). The liner notes by David Ciucevich proclaim: “Africa is one of Still's grandest achievements.” The disc also contains William Grant Still's Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American) and In Memoriam (1943) (7:22). Lara Downes notes that authentic music of Africa was not available to Still. She writes: “William Grant Still expressed his struggle living in the permanent exile of the African diaspora through a musically imagined mythical Africa, unknowable and unreachable in any factual way...”

Paul Bowles: Preludes for Piano
Paul Bowles writes of a person who had lived a life of travel, in The Sheltering Sky: “Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home.” Lara Downes performs four of the Preludes, Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 6.

Michael Sahl: “Tango from the Exiles' Cafe”
Lara Downes writes above that this music furnishes both the inspiration and the title track of her recording.

Darius Milhaud: Romance, Op. 78, No. 2
“This Romance was written in 1922 during Milhaud's first visit to America. Enthralled by the improvisatory freedom he found in Harlem's dance halls, he found a new independence in his own music, a personal voice that deepened over the next decade...”

Frédéric Chopin: Mazurka, Op. 68, No. 4
“This Mazurka would be Chopin's last composition, written just months before his death.”

Mohammed Fairouz: Piano Miniature No. 6, “Addio”
“Fairouz's series of piano miniatures is subtitled 'Addio.' I include it here in tribute to all the farewells that are said, in all the journeys of exile.”

This recording is a keeper, with a permanent place in our music player. Bartok's opening pieces, Three Hungarian Folksongs from the Csik District, welcome the listener with a tinkling cheerfulness. The weighty burden of the exiled composers notwithstanding, the recording as a whole provides an exotic and rewarding musical experience.

Disclosure: A review copy of this recording was provided by the record label.

Comments by email:
Thank you so much, Bill! I'm very glad you enjoyed the disc - my thanks for such a thoughtful and comprehensive review.  All the best,  L [Lara Downes]

Posted on the Collaborative Piano Blog Facebook Page:  Chris [Dr. Chris Foley]

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