Washington Post: Pianist Lara Downes gives insightful performance of Czech composers

Washington Post
By Stephen Brookes

Franz Kafka may have been ignored in his own lifetime, but his novels — and the sense of dread and alienation they evoke — came to have an extraordinary impact on the 20th century mind. So it was intriguing to hear pianist Lara Downes at the Embassy of the Czech Republic on Thursday evening, playing music by Czech composers who endured the rising totalitarianism that Kafka’s writing seemed to presage — and who were either killed by it or forced into decades of exile.

Perhaps the most tragic of these was Erwin Schulhoff, who produced an astonishingly innovative body of work — including the “Suite Dansante en Jazz,” which Downes opened with — before dying in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942. The six-movement suite is an earthy, slow-burning piece from 1931, bluesy at its heart but imbued with edgy, wildly colored, often brilliant ideas, and Downes gave it a fine reading — more thoughtful than sensual, maybe, but very engaging.

She followed with Andre Singer’s “Nine Parables to Franz Kafka’s ‘Amerika,’ ” which alternated short passages from Kafka’s enigmatic 1914 novel with equally enigmatic and expressive musical fragments — a fascinating work from Singer (who was forced into exile in the 1930s) that seemed to capture a complex and Kafkaesque world where nothing is what it seems to be. Robert Rehak and Mary Fetzco delivered the written passages with aplomb.

Jaroslav Jezek’s lovely “Svita” (Shining) — famous for boosting Czech morale during World War II — provided a few moments of sunshine, as did five of Bohuslav Martinů’s “Etudes and Polkas.” Written in exile (where the composer spent much of his life), these brief pieces seemed to evoke both the freedom of a new world and nostalgia for the old; a poignant glimpse into the heart of the exiled composer.

The final work on the program was the biggest but the least satisfying. Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a remarkable prodigy, and his Sonata No. 2 in E Major, Op. 2, written when he was all of 13 years old, is a remarkable accomplishment for an adolescent, technically accomplished and ambitious in every way. That said, it’s a noisy show-off piece, full of heroic chest-pounding and thundering charges up and down the keyboard, anchored by a largo con dolore that fairly wallows in adolescent woe. Downes — who admitted that Korngold was “the new love of my life” — gave the thing an impassioned performance, but it was her insights into the more complex, understated and subtle works on the program that more deeply impressed.