Exiles' Café
Full track-list below
Lara Downes (piano)
rec. Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA, 12-14 September 2012.
STEINWAY & SONS 30016 [60:00] 

Exiles' Café

Erich KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Piano Sonata no.2 in E, op.2 (1910) [29:48]
Lara Downes (piano)
rec. Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia, USA, 12-14 September 2012.
STEINWAY & SONS 90016 [29:48]

There is obviously some scope for confusion here, with two almost identical CDs - same cover photo, same title, same pianist, almost the same catalogue number - released together by Steinway & Sons.
In fact, 90016 is effectively a CD single, featuring Lara Downes' reading of Korngold's Piano Sonata no.2, whilst 30016 is a 'concept' album as part of which Downes plays the first movement only.
According to Steinway & Sons, the all-Korngold disc is only available as a digital download, but ArkivMusic for one are selling it - very cheaply - as a physical CD. 
The main disc is "the result of a moment of inspiration after hearing a lovely little piece entitled Tango from the Exiles' Café. Downes fantasized about this café and created a narrative around it, which she describes as 'both real and metaphorical.' This album captures the pain, nostalgia, and freedom that are indelibly tied to this state of being - in exile."
There is something faintly spurious about this exile concept: these are not all "composers who were prevented from returning to their homeland", as the blurb has it, and some were not even in exile when their contributions were written. Accepting therefore a more liberal definition of the term, Downes' recital is at heart a stroll down memory lane, contemplative and a little bluesy/jazzy - revisiting "vanished worlds", certainly, but little in the way of Weltschmerz, as one review of this disc claims. Rather than conjuring up any sense of loss or even tragedy - characteristics that might be expected to result from ejection or banishment - Downes' programme generates feelings of ease and warmth that are associated with the enjoyment of refreshments on a café terrace or pavement on a balmy summer's afternoon.
According to the label, Downes has been "acclaimed as one of the leading innovators in reinventing the chamber and solo piano show", but here she slips back into the old ways of simply playing widely appealing music with feeling and poise. On the other hand, there are no great challenges here to a pianist of her calibre, and it seems efforts have been made to keep the character of these always atmospheric miniatures even - hence the fairly narrow register, dynamics and tempi, and a range of composers who were nearly all contemporaries.
There is however an abundance of unhurried, lilting charm on Downes' part, an almost uninterrupted flow of lovely melody and lush harmonies from her composers, all enhanced by a finely engineered sound from Steinway.
In some respects, Korngold's Second Piano Sonata deserves a CD to itself, being such an amazing work to come from a 13-year-old's mind. Its fin-de-siècle character and Downes' relatively dégagé pace means that it would not have been entirely out of place on the main disc, and could indeed have been accommodated with the cutting of no more than one short piece from that programme. There are several good recordings of the work already, not least Martin Jones' on Nimbus, part of a four-disc complete piano works (NI5705), but Downes' relaxed approach, in combination with a low price and good Steinway audio, make this one a worthwhile consideration.  


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An abundance of unhurried, lilting charm.

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Full track-list of 30016: 
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
3 Hungarian Folksongs from the Csík District, Sz. 35a [3:12]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Mazurka in F sharp minor, op.6 no.1 [3:31]
Mazurka in F minor, op.68 no.4 [2:12]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Pastoral Sonatina in C, op.59 no.3 [4:58]
Bohuslav MARTIN Ů (1890-1959)
Dumka no.2, H.250 [2:25]
Dumka no.3, H.285bis [1:40]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Tango in D minor [3:02]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Prelude in D minor, op. posth. [3:04]
Fragments, op. posth. [2:03]
Kurt WEILL (1900-1950) (arr. Jed Distler)
Lost in the Stars [4:27]
Erich KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Moderato (from: Piano Sonata no.2, op.2) [8:48]
William Grant STILL (1895-1958)
Land of Romance (from: Africa) [6:53]
Peter BOWLES (1910-1990)
Prelude no.1 [1:44]
Prelude no.2 [1:00]
Prelude no.3 [1:24]
Prelude no.6 [1:50]
Michael SAHL (b.1944)
Tango from the Exiles’ Café [3:48]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Rag Caprice no.2 [1.50]
Mohammed FAIROUZ (b.1985)
Piano Miniature no.6, 'Addio' [2:18]