Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review: Paley Music Festival

Alexander Paley, piano
Sept. 26, St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church

In concert, Alexander Paley sometimes brings to mind some unstoppable natural phenomenon – a tsunami, maybe. Fortunately, there are no known cases of people unfiguratively being swept away and drowned by music.

The only potential casualty of Paley’s performances of two long keyboard suites by Jean-Philippe Rameau and the 24 études of the Op. 10 and Op. 25 sets by Frédéric Chopin would have been the pianist himself. Paley came out of it apparently unscathed; after nearly three hours of high-intensity performing, he was soon back at the keyboard for an impromptu coaching session with some of the young piano students invited to sit in the front pews for the second half of the concert.

Opening night of the 17th annual Paley Festival was the most intimate session of music-making since the first festival was staged in a downtown Richmond bookstore. In the sanctuary of St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, most listeners were seated within 15 feet of the pianist. The brightness of the room’s acoustic and the church’s Cristofori piano lent even more presence to the performance.

Rameau and Chopin, composers of markedly different musical eras and sensibilities, proved to be quite complementary voices, at least in Paley’s hands.

He treated the baroque dances of Rameau’s suites in A minor and G minor, from “Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin” (1726-27), rather like miniature tone poems – in one instance, the allemande opening the A minor Suite, like a pre-echo of the modern Parisian chanson.

This music was written, of course, for the harpsichord; and this piano’s tonal character, especially the “twang” of bass notes at high volume, at times recalled the sound of the antique, plucked-string keyboard. Paley also was scrupulous in his treatment of French baroque ornamentation, moderating tempos so that Rameau’s flourishes sounded clearly and without crowding. These were, nevertheless, unashamedly pianistic performances – thoroughly convincing and deeply absorbing ones at that.

And not entirely as obscure as listeners might have expected: In the middle of the Suite in G minor, what should appear but a brilliant little number, “La Poule” (“The Hen”), that Ottorino Respighi used (titled, in Italian, “La Gallina”) in his orchestral suite “Gli Uccelli” (“The Birds”). Paley’s pecking effects were even more vivid than Respighi’s.

The Chopin études, which range expressively from thunderous to dreamy in mood, and from densely solid to prismatically wispy in texture, might have been written for a pianist of Paley’s technique and temperament. Each set seemed to burst forth under his hands – he barely paused for breath between numbers – with extraordinary urgency and unbridled spirit.

“He plays Chopin like a god,” one listener said. Almost literally so in the more emphatic études, such as the first and last of Op. 10. There, and elsewhere, it was as if “let there be light” were pronounced in musical tone.

The Paley Music Festival continues with Alexander Paley and Pei-Wen Chen playing Schoenberg’s piano four-hands transcription of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27 and Paley, cellist Rebecca Zimmerman and clarinetist Charles West playing sonatas and trios of Beethoven and Brahms at 3 p.m. Sept. 28, both at St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church, 7757 Chippenham Parkway. Admission by donation. Details: (804) 665-9516;