Saturday, September 27, 2008

Review: Paley Festival

Sept. 26, First English Lutheran Church, Richmond

Pianist Alexander Paley is devoting his 11th music festival in Richmond to solo, duo and trio works of the German romantics, a school that packs as much poetry, earnestness, virtuosity and neurosis – and often as many notes – into small-scale works as large ones. Not for nothing did Robert Schumann call his Third Piano Sonata a "concerto without orchestra."

Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, with which Paley opened the festival, set an appropriate tone for what was to follow on opening night and in two subsequent programs. The piece calls for a musician with abundant technique, which Paley certainly is, as well as volatility, rhetorical flair and the ability and inclination to project a tonal stream of consciousness. Schumann audibly struggles to confine his poetic impulses within sonata form – struggles, even, to end the work in a finale with at least four false climaxes – as he summons all the dynamism and expressive power of the piano. Paley, who is new to this rarely played music, relished its technical and structural challenges.

The heart of the program contrasted two trios with French horn: Johannes Brahms’ familiar Trio in E flat major, Op. 40, for piano, violin and horn, and Carl Reinecke’s obscure Trio, Op. 274, for piano, clarinet and horn. Horn player Patrick Smith, a member of the Virginia Commonwealth University music faculty, brought rich sonority and gratifying technical control to both pieces.

Smith, Paley and violinist Kathy Judd made especially fine work of the Brahms, maintaining balance (always tricky in Brahms’ chamber music with piano, especially so with this combination of instruments) and playing expressively without dragging and, in the scherzo and finale, with real playfulness – a relatively rare commodity in Brahms, but one that needs to be fully exploited when it arises. Judd performed with refinement and assertiveness, notably in the instrument’s lower register, and Paley reined in the piano without underplaying.

Reinecke’s late-romantic opus (written in 1903) is unusual not just in its instrumentation, but in its projection of German-romantic Sturm and pathos without some inner demon guiding the proceedings. The piece is Brahmsian in style, but lacking Brahms’ volatility and emotional nuance. It sounds to be music awaiting a narrative, wanting to tell "a tale" (as Reinecke titles its slow movement), which the composer isn’t quite inspired to supply. Paley, Smith and VCU-based clarinetist Charles West played the piece as a lively, expressive and (when appropriate) stormy exchange.

Paley and his wife, Pei-Wen Chen, closed the opening-night program with the first of three samplings of Carl Maria von Weber’s music for piano four-hands, "Six pieces faciles," Op. 3. The set recalls Mozart and Schubert in its abundance of melody, and is decidedly Mozartian in its joyfully witty interplay. The inevitable highlight of the set its andante, with its variations on a tune that seems to be the source of the "All Things Considered" radio theme. Paley and Chen performed with clarity and affection.

The Alexander Paley Music Festival continues with music of Schumann, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Weber at 8 p.m. Sept. 27, and works by Schumann, Brahms and Weber at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 28, at First English Lutheran Church, Monument Avenue at Lombardy Street (Stuart Circle). Admission is by donation. Details: (804) 355-9185;