Over the last decade, the San Francisco pianist Lara Downes has made several recordings around some stimulating themes, including “American Ballads” as interpreted by a broad swath of composers, and “Dream of Me,” featuring various nocturnes and reveries.
Downes’s latest album, "Exiles' Café," focuses on the concept of music written in exile, expressed through short pieces by composers including Chopin, Milhaud, Bartok, Weill, and Rachmaninoff. As Downes recently explained, “cafes have historically housed and sheltered exiles and emigres in every corner of the globe, through so many journeys and displacements." In other words, think Cafe Centrale or Les Deux Magots, rather than your typical chain coffee shop.
Displacement due to war and political turmoil is a major thread on the album. Two of Chopin’s Mazurkas — Op. 6 No. 1 and Op. 68 No. 4 — reflect his 18-year exile in France, prompted by revolution in his native Poland. Bartok's three Hungarian folksongs from the Csik District were composed in 1907, long before he was exiled in New York, but they have the spirit of nostalgia for a simpler place and time.
The gathering war clouds of the 1930s forced many composers to leave for the United States. Among those featured here are Kurt Weill and Erich Korngold, and while the latter composer is represented by an early work (a movement from his Second Sonata in E major of 1910), Weill’s Lost in the Stars is from 1949, and is heard in an arrangement by New York pianist-composer Jed Distler.
Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev both went into exile around the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia in 1917-18; the former is represented with his Fragments, the latter with the Pastoral Sonatina in C major. Among the album’s gems are two Dumkas by Bohuslav Martinu, a composer who spent a greater proportion of his life in exile from his native Czechoslovakia.
Finally, not to be overlooked is Mohammed Fairouz’s Piano Miniature No. 6, “Addio,” a piece which draws on his Arab-American roots. Downes plays with a sensitivity and alertness to the many styles represented on "Exiles' Cafe."
Lara Downes, piano
Steinway and Sons
Available at Arkivmusic.com