This coming Tuesday the Steinway & Sons recording label will be releasing the latest in a series of albums featuring the adventurous young pianist Lara Downes. While Downes has a busy touring schedule, she is Artist in Residence at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at the University of California at Davis, where she serves as Artistic Director of the Young Artists program. This brings her close enough to the San Francisco Bay Area to provide me with opportunities to both preview and write about her performances, most recently as the Director of a concert series in San Francisco called The Artist Sessions.
The new release is actually a duo album on which Downes performs with cellist Zuill Bailey. The title is Some Other Time; and, as is usually the case, it is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com. The title is that of one of the last of the songs from the musical On the Town, for which Leonard Bernstein composed the score. The entire album offers a generous sampling of Bernstein’s music along with works by three of his contemporaries, Samuel Barber, Lukas Foss, and Aaron Copland. Furthermore, two of the Bernstein compositions were actually written as anniversary pieces for Foss and Copland, respectively. These, along with a set of variations Foss wrote on “New York, New York,” another song from On the Town, were written for solo piano, which is how Downes performs them on this recording.
Many of the selections are transcriptions; but it seems fair to begin by addressing the two pieces that were actually composed for cello and piano, one each by Barber and Foss. I must confess that I was particularly drawn to the performance of Barber’s Opus 6 cello sonata, having first been exposed to it through the collection Samuel Barber Historical Recordings 1935–1960 on the Canadian West Hill Radio Archives label and available for import from Amazon.com. On that album the recording was made on January 28, 1973 in Curtis Hall at the Curtis Institute of Music. Pianist Vladimir Sokoloff accompanied cellist Orlando Cole, who had given the sonata’s premiere performance in March of 1933. (I believe that Barber was in the audience for this 1973 performance.)
Barber did not write many pieces for an accompanied solo instrument. The best known of these is his 1939 violin concerto. Listening to Bailey and Downes, I found I could appreciate their awareness of Barber in his own historical context, even to the point of suggesting (but never emphasizing) that the cello sonata provided some of the seeds from which that violin concerto would later grow. I also enjoyed the fact that they had chosen to revive interest in the sonata. It has received relatively little attention on recording and thus runs the risk of being dismissed as a historical relic. However, both Baily and Downes have embraced the rich expressiveness of Barber’s rhetoric; and I can only hope that, through this recording, it will establish a more secure place in the current chamber music repertoire.
The Foss composition is a capriccio composed in 1948. Over the course of his life, Foss explored a broad variety of both genres and theoretical approaches to composition (the latter including both extended improvisation and the use of electronics). However, as an immigrant to the United States who arrived in 1937, Foss displayed a strong streak of Americana in many of his earliest pieces; and this capriccio is one of them. One may thus approach the capriccio as Foss’ attempt to endow a cello with the vigor and spontaneity of a square dance fiddler; and the result is a rather engaging combination of virtuosity and wit, making for yet another example of cello chamber music that needs to be brought out of the shadows, at least for encores if not for concert programming.
The major transcription is of Bernstein’s clarinet sonata, completed in 1942. Bailey prepared that transcription, and it is definitely a sensible one. The cello shares with the clarinet a broad pitch range with distinctively different sonorities in different registers. However, what may be most important is the way Bailey endowed his transcription with its own distinctive “cello rhetoric.” In the ordering of the tracks, one listens to this transcription after the Foss capriccio; and it is difficult to avoid detecting further evidence of that “fiddle virtuosity” that Foss had exploited in his own composition. The result is music that really sounds like a cello sonata, rather than a cello trying to play a challenging clarinet part.
The remaining transcriptions are all of songs. While the accompanying booklet does not provide details, I would be willing to guess that they are the result of an effort shared by both Bailey and Downes. Indeed, it would not surprise me if each transcription began with Bailey playing the vocal line and then, when necessary, working out with Downes how the content would be divided over the course of rehearsal, eventually documenting the mutually agreed-upon results. In other words this was music that emerged from the process of making it, rather than from any attempt at “pre-planning.”
Each of the song composers is approached from a different rhetorical stance. For Bernstein that is the rhetoric of Broadway, with a decided preference for wistful sentiment over flashier pizzazz. For Copland it is two of his folk song settings, “Simple Gifts” and “Long Time Ago,” both of which capture a rhetoric of quiet introspection, rather than an excess of sentimentality. Barber, on the other hand, was a serious lover of poetry; and the transcription of “Sure on this Shining Night” captures all of his admiration for how James Agee fashioned the words that Barber would then translate into song.
Because all of Some Other Time is so thoroughly American, it might be appropriate to look back on Downes’ earlier Steinway & Songs release from February of 2013, Exiles’ Cafe. This was conceived as a survey of music composed in exile, covering composers as early as Frédéric Chopin and as recent as the currently active Mohammed Fairouz. I am not sure I totally buy into the premise behind Downes’ selections. William Grant Still, for example, spent all of his life in the United States and became a pioneer as an African American composer. Similarly, on the basis of what I know about Paul Bowles, he was more of a willing expatriate than an exile. However, if the overall logic of Exiles’ Cafe is not as consistent as that of Some Other Time, the breadth of Downes’ selections is still impressive, as is her ability to endow each with a musicality that reflects the mindset of the composer.
Nevertheless, if one composer stands out above others on Exiles Cafe, it would have to be Erich Wolfgang Korngold. He is represented by the first movement of his Opus 2 piano sonata in E major, composed in 1910. Through this single movement one can appreciate Korngold’s prodigiousness in thematic invention, rich harmonies, and thick textures. Those inclined to compare Korngold with Arnold Schoenberg will find his approach highly regressive; but, if Korngold’s viewpoint was always retrospective, he could still come up with original angles for it.
For many, the first movement of Opus 2 is likely to create curiosity about the remaining three movements. Since the full sonata is only about half an hour in duration, it cannot fill its own album; but Steinway & Sons has made it available for digital download from ClassicsOnline. This may not, strictly speaking, be “music of exile;” but it certainly offers some delicious helpings of pianistic rhetoric, all of which are capably and engagingly executed by Downes on this recording.