Lara Downes

Exiles' Café

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American pianist Lara Downes' Exiles' Café is "a place both real and metaphorical, a place where individuals gather from all over the world to find a home away from home. It is filled with dream-chasers: travelers, nomads, explorers, gypsies, and vagabonds -- as well as refugees thrust on journeys undesired." To put together an entire program under this rubric seems a tall order at first, yet exile was a theme running all through the music of the 19th and 20th centuries, and rare were composers who ended up where they started. The charm of Downes' program lies in how she brings together music by such a variety of composers yet finds a very specific elegiac yet somehow adventurous mood in all of it. The notes dance around the fact that not all these composers had been exiled by the time the works involved were written. Bartók's limpid Hungarian Folksongs from the Csik District, Sz 35a, were composed in 1907, years before the composer left Hungary. Yet they might easily have been performed by Bartók upon arriving in the U.S., and the quiet, delicately sad tone of the whole. It is actually surprising to see how many composers fit in, given that the period is generally taken to be one of storming artistic barricades. It's not often that you would find Rachmaninov, Paul Bowles, Bohuslav Martinu, and William Grant Still on the same program, but here they happily coexist. Yet they don't sound the same, which is what gives this collection of 21 pieces on a single emotion its variety. Downes keeps very tight control over the material, rarely letting the music rise above moderate volume or the emotional temperature above melancholy. The result is that this exiles' café really comes alive with the sounds of 100 years ago, and the sadness of upheaval. A wonderful release from the Steinway & Sons label, which has taken the attitude that one way to perpetuate piano-playing is to offer recordings that imaginatively explore piano repertory.

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