Friday, September 25, 2015

Review: Paley Music Festival

Alexander Paley, piano
Paley and Peiwen Chen, piano four-hands
Sept. 25, St. Luke Lutheran Church

Musical impressionism, with its shimmering colors, rarified harmonies and seemingly open-ended structures, is usually associated with Debussy, Ravel and other French composers of the early 20th century. Pianist Alexander Paley, in the opening concert of his 18th annual Richmond festival, showed that impressionism has Slavic voices, too – notably, Pancho Vladigerov (1899-1978), the leading composer of modern Bulgaria.

Paley played Vladigerov’s “Sonatina concertante,” Op. 28, a work that belies its title – it’s no miniature – and probably confounded expectations of what classical music from the most southeastern of Slavic lands might sound like. Who would have expected a main theme theme in the first movement, recurring in the third, that could be a not-too-distant cousin of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square?”

The vaguely “oriental” central andantino of Vladigerov’s sonatina came closer to ethnic expectations, but proved to be an interlude in music mainly driven by moodiness and sophisticated melodic invention.

The “Sonata-Reminiscenza” in A minor, Op. 38, No. 1, of the Russian Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) was somewhat more firmly moored to its national/ethnic origins, but still unmistakably impressionistic, and through much of the piece almost stream-of-consciousness in character.

In both works, Paley devoted as much energy and concentration in illuminating detail as in passionate expression – not that there was any shortage of the latter.

With his wife and piano four-hands partner, Peiwen Chen, Paley played three pieces from the little-known canon of Franz Schubert in this medium: the “Grand Rondeau” in A major, D. 951; Allegro in A minor, D. 947; and “Eight Variations on a Theme from Hérold’s Opera ‘Marie’,” D. 908.

The allegro, known as “Lebensstürme” (“Storms of Life”), was the most satisfying of the three – surely for Chen, who had a more substantive bass line here than in the other two works, but also for the listener in that the music follows a dramatized trajectory rather than the rather obsessive mining of a pleasing but slender tune that predominates in the rondo and set of variations. Paley’s volatile pianism found a better outlet in “Lebensstürme,” as well.

Paley rounded out this opening-night program with performances of Chopin’s “Polonaise-Fantasie,” Op. 61, and the solo-piano version of George Enescu’s “Romanian Rhapsody” No. 1. In both, the pianist summoned quite explosive playing in big climaxes; but both readings also were distinguished by close attention to finer details of phrasing, rhythm and dynamics.

The Paley Music Festival continues with Rossini’s “Petite Messe Solennelle” at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26, and chamber music of Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Saint-Saëns at 3 p.m. Sept. 27, at St. Luke Lutheran Church, Chippenham Parkway at Custis Road. Donations are requested. Details: (804) 665-9516;