Saturday, October 15, 2011

Review: Paley Festival

Oct. 14, First English Lutheran Church

Opening night of Alexander Paley’s 14th annual Richmond festival was highlighted by a singular performance of Schubert’s last piano sonata, the B flat major, D. 960, in which the pianist filtered Schubertian style and lyricism through Russian passion and volatility.

Paley took substantial liberties with Schubert’s tempos – the sonata’s great andante, for example, slowed to a near-largo pace at times – and played the work’s stormier and faster passages with extraordinary vehemence. Eccentric or willful the performance may have been; but it was also compelling and palpably heartfelt.

The pianist and violinist Akemi Takayama treated Beethoven’s Sonata in G major, Op. 30, to a similarly fiery reading. Takayama favored a sweetly soulful sound, but proved ready to ratchet up to match Paley’s level of nervy intensity. The result was not the tidiest of performances, but tidiness is rarely what one wants in Beethoven.

Paley and his wife and piano partner, Pei-Wen Chen, are surveying the four-hands works of Mozart in this edition of the festival. They started with the Sonata in C major, K. 521, a substantial work with an especially soulful slow movement, and the Theme and Variations in G major, a decorous set of variations on a theme that might have been a comic-opera aria.

The Blüthner piano that Paley uses for these festival performances is a German-made instrument whose bright tone and clarity ought to be ideally suited to the composers represented in this program. On this occasion, however, the piano’s treble register was almost painfully bright at high volume, while its bass sounded recessed and often muddy. The imbalance was bothersome in the Mozart sonata, and even more so in the important bass lines of the first movement of the Schubert.

The Paley Festival continues with performances at 8 p.m. Oct. 15 and 3:30 p.m. Oct. 16 at First English Lutheran Church, Stuart Circle (Monument Avenue at Lombardy Street), Richmond. Admission is by donation. Details: (804) 355-9185;