For Love of You, the new album from Lara Downes, marks the bicentennial of Clara Schumann’s birth in rich Romantic style. The pianist offers respectful, impassioned performances of works by Clara amid more familiar music by her husband Robert.
The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra conducted by Martin West supports Downes in a crisp reading of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor, written at Clara’s urging to highlight her own prodigious skill. Downes finds complex shades of meaning in the pianistic waterfalls of the dynamic first movement (“Allegro affetuoso”), delineating every phrase and note as if it were a jewel while always sustaining the music’s momentum and flow. The graceful second movement (“Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso”) is Robert at the peak of his small-scale charm, a snow globe of a world in five-plus minutes. Downes takes just the right low-key approach, letting the music speak for itself.
The final movement’s “Allegro Vivace” high spirits can be a bit much for me, but Downes and West take a careful, unhurried approach that suits it well. A wise synthesis of delicacy and assertiveness makes the piano runs sing, the orchestral passages shine sunnily, and the whole a dance celebrating one of music’s great collaborations.
Clara Schumann’s own compositions are fewer, and more seldom heard (though numerous New York City events, from intimate chamber concerts to operas, are highlighting them this season in honor of her 200th birth anniversary). On the album, Downes places music by Robert before and after Clara’s “Three Romances” (op. 11) for solo piano. Clara’s “Romances” are exquisite small pieces. Downes sensitively unfolds their sometimes Brahmsian depths. The relative simplicity and calm of the third (humbly notated “Moderato”) leaves us wanting more of Clara, and of Downes’ warm feeling for her music.
What we get instead is solo piano music from Robert’s pen, with which Downes is equally at home. Through her light-fingered but spirited readings of his Fantasiestück (op. 12) it’s easy to imbibe Robert’s ardent spirit. You hear it in the impassioned themes of “Aufschwung,” amid the longing for answers in “Warum?,” in the haunted dreams of “In der Nacht.” Notable also are Downes’ interpretation of the strange rhythmic dance of “Grillen” and the seesaw energy she finds in “Fabel.”
Downes, whose album of American music we reviewed in 2016, appeared at National Sawdust September 13, joined by harpist Bridget Kibbey, vocalist Magos Herrera, and pianist Simone Dinnerstein, with a program of music by female composers. Entitled “Holes in the Sky” after a quote from Georgia O’Keeffe, the concert included music by Clara Schumann, Florence Price, Meredith Monk, Nina Simone, Paola Prestini, Joni Mitchell, and others. It proved a fitting celebration of the work – it’s now safe to say the tradition – of women composers, beginning, in this informal accounting, with Clara Schumann. Downes opened with two of those Op. 11 “Romances.” Elegant rubatos and a silken flow characterized these live performances, No. 1 deeply poignant, No. 3 more lively.
Lively is a weak word for the dynamic artistry of Downes’ first guest, harpist Bridget Kibbey, who electrified the hall with equal parts skill and showmanship.
Downes’ eclectic inspirations span not only centuries but a broad range of those necessary-evil constructs we call genres. So it makes perfect sense that one such inspiration is Nina Simone, the great 20th-century synthesist of folk, blues, and jazz (who, not incidentally, began her musical journey aspiring to be a classical concert pianist). Piano and harp are a rare duo combination, but the instruments’ distinct colors harmoniously merged in an improvisatory, non-rhythmic take on Simone’s version of the folk song “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” Then, with the gently folky “Take Me to the Water,” pianist and harpist again aptly recalled Simone’s fusion of multiple traditions, this time resulting in a feeling homespun waltz.
Kibbey’s piercing artistry returned a bit later, accompanying the wonderful singer Magos Herrera on Ariel Ramírez’s popular folk song “Alfonsina y el mar,” about poet Alfonsina Storni’s suicide. For sheer sublimity, this was a peak of the evening, even with Downes sitting the number out. Herrera’s masterful control and emotional focus made the performance a marvel of communication. She and Downes also turned the traditional lullaby “Arroro mi Nina” into a small artistic gem.
Downes recalled African-American composers from the first half of the 20th century with a deft performance of Florence Price’s “Memory Mist” and a showstopping reading of Margaret Bonds‘ “Troubled Water.” Filled with spiritual intensity and modernistic flourishes, and beautifully played, it suggested Bonds as a progenitor of rock.
Elena Ruehr’s colorful and dramatic “Music Pink and Blue” was full of rough gestures and forceful accents. Simone Dinnerstein joined Downes in an impressive display of synchrony with two pieces by Meredith Monk for two pianos. Downes’ grit was also in evidence in excerpts from Paola Prestini’s Limpopo Songs, while in her world premiere performance of “Merzouga” by Liz Queler she slipped neatly back into the mood of Clara Schumann’s “Romances.” Through her talent and imagination Lara Downes is more than a fine musician; she’s a cultural curator of top rank.